T-X Competition Pits Established Aircraft Against New Designs

By Stew Magnuson
After years of waiting for the Air Force to move forward with a program to build a new end-to-end jet fighter training system, four teams have come forward to compete for the potentially lucrative contract.

Two of those teams have training aircraft being sold internationally that they say fit all the Air Force requirements. Raytheon and its partner Alenia Aermacchi, part of the Leonardo group of companies, are offering the T-100, which is based on the Italian manufacturer’s M-346.
Lockheed Martin is proposing its T-50, an aircraft it developed with Korea Aerospace Industries.

Rivals Boeing-Saab and Northrop Grumman are countering with so-called clean-sheet designs, aircraft they will build from the ground up based on Air Force specifications, although Northrop officials have indicated that the company has a prototype nearly ready to fly.

The Air Force intends to buy 350 of the trainers, which it says are needed to replace the aging T-38. A draft request for proposals went out to industry in late July, with the final RFP due in December, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said recently.

“We’re very focused on the future of the trainer force,” James said at a talk organized by Defense One.

“I believe that [there] has been an unprecedented level of discussion on requirements with industry about both the baseline requirements as well as what are considered the higher level requirements,” she said.

As industry waited for the Air Force to obtain funding from Congress and move forward with the program, several participants over the past two years either left the competition or created new alliances.

BAE Systems — with Northrop Grumman as a partner — at one point was offering the British-built Hawk, a training aircraft BAE has fielded in various iterations since the 1970s. It has withdrawn that aircraft from consideration and joined a newly formed team with Northrop Grumman, which is now serving as the program lead. Northrop announced plans for a new design that it is creating with its subsidiary Scaled Composites, BAE and L-3, which will provide the ground simulators.

The Air Force is calling for potential vendors to deliver an end-to-end solution, which will include the ground-based systems.

General Dynamics announced a partnership with Alenia Aermacchi  in 2014 to build a follow-on to the Italian-made M-346, but it withdrew its participation. Raytheon has stepped in as the project lead.

“We consider the T-100 a block upgrade to the baseline M-346,” said Dan Darnell, vice president of strategic initiatives for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.

“We have an airplane that is mature. It is flying in four countries now operationally, and all of them are very happy with it,” he said.

Singapore, Italy, Israel and Poland have purchased a total of 68 aircraft.

After seeing the draft RFP, Raytheon believes there will be little need for a major redesign. One big change, though, will be a large-area display in the cockpit, which will replace three smaller displays in the M-346.

The Air Force wants a flexible display that can replicate what pilots will see on their screens. It will not only mimic the fourth and fifth-generation fighter aircraft screens, it will allow for live, virtual and constructive training.

Trainees looking at the large-area display will see enemy aircraft and readings from sensors that are not actually there. The embedded tactical training system on the aircraft will give instructors the ability to pre-program a mission on a cartridge and download it into the computer before the lesson. The trainee will see on the display simulated enemy aircraft on a non-existing radar. Such high-tech sensors are too expensive to integrate into training aircraft.

“You can program it the way you want it and display it any way that makes sense to the user,” Darnell said. The ground-based training system Raytheon is proposing is mature and is being used by the Italian air force, he said.

Instructors can modify the simulations in flight. They can reset the lesson as many times necessary if the student isn’t grasping how to do the task. They can change the ranges of enemy aircraft, adjust the characteristics and dynamics of the intercepts and rearrange ground targets as well, he added.

The T-100 also features “stadium style” seating for instructors, who will be able to look over their students’ heads.

“It sounds like a small thing but it’s a big thing when you’re an instructor when you have that kind of capability,” he said.

“You have to have an airplane that is a good compromise between safety, predictability and an aircraft that is good enough to transition to fourth- or fifth-generation students that are going to fly the F-16, F-16, F-22, F-35,” Darnell said.

The Air Force is asking for “safety,” and while it doesn’t spell out a requirement for more than one engine, the T-100’s twin engines are inherently safer, Darnell noted.  

When Poland, Israel and Singapore competed contracts for new trainers, the M-346 went up against the Lockheed Martin-Korea Aerospace built T-50 and was chosen in all three cases, Darnell noted.  

That may be, said Mike Griswold, advanced pilot trainer capture lead at Lockheed Martin, but countries that need new trainers now, or in the near future, are in a wait-and-see mode. They want to know what the U.S. Air Force will chose.

Lockheed Martin and KAI have sold some 150 training and light attack variants of the single-engine T-50. Anticipating the draft RFP, it has built and flown two upgraded prototypes it calls the T-50A.

One of them has an optional aerial refueling capability.

There is no firm requirement for the T-X to have a refueling system from the start. It’s an “objective” requirement, meaning if a contractor can deliver the capability, they might earn some “extra credit,” he said. It’s a similar concept to the F-16’s conformal fuel tanks, although it isn’t a tank but an adapter, he said.

“It’s alternate mission equipment that can be loaded if the training requires refueling,” he said. The adapter is an attachment that can be bolted on near the tail of the fuselage. There is some “plumbing” involved, but it is a functioning refueling system developed at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works laboratory.

“We took the time to come up with an innovative flexible, low-cost solution for the Air Force,” he said, noting that few training sorties will actually require refueling, so it makes sense to have a bolt-on system that will only be used as needed.

As for the ground-based simulators, and the new cockpit display, those solutions are coming from Lockheed’s in-house capabilities. It is simply dropping the large-area display it developed for its F-35 joint strike fighter into the T-50A. The ground simulators come from its training and simulations division based in Orlando, Florida.

Lockheed is putting a lot of emphasis on flexible open architecture so the aircraft’s mission can be expanded.

“The T-38 has flown for over 50 years, and the T-X could fly that long as well so you want to have a good solid baseline that you could grow on,” he said.

Along with South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Iraq and the Philippines have purchased the T-50 or its variants. The aircraft has flown more than 200,000 flight hours and trained more than 1,000 pilots since it was introduced in 2005.

Both the T-50A and T-100 meet all the Air Force requirements for speed and maneuverability, which translates to sustained G-levels and tight turns.

Lockheed Martin has already refurbished a factory in Greenville, South Carolina, to build its jet trainers. Raytheon has not made a decision as to where it would manufacture the aircraft if it were to win, but somewhere in the United States, Darnell said.

Boeing-Saab and Northrop Grumman meanwhile, declined to make executives available to talk about their potential entries.

Northrop Grumman would be considered the incumbent contractor. Its legacy company, The Northrop Co., built the first T-38s for the Air Force in 1961 and delivered the final of more than 1,100 it manufactured by 1972.

Katherine Thompson, a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman, said, “The Air Force delivered the draft [RFP] as we anticipated, and we are progressing forward. Our team is working to evaluate and understand all the information and implications of the draft, and continue the open communication we have with the customer.”

Executives from Northrop Grumman and its subsidiary Scaled Composites told National Defense the new aircraft would have its inaugural flight in 2015, but later changed it to this calendar year.

There will be more news about its prototype “in the coming months,” Thompson said.
“What sets our solution apart is the team we have assembled to build and deliver it. No other industry competitor has the years of pilot training experience that this team cumulatively brings to the program. Northrop Grumman’s history with the T-38, BAE Systems’ history with Hawk, and pilot training delivered by L-3 that dates back before World War II brings together over 180 years of experience that is serving as the foundation of our solution,” she said. She added that the company wasn’t ready to announce where it would manufacture its aircraft.

Even more reticent was the Boeing-Saab team. Spokeswoman Rachelle Lockhart declined to share any details other than it would be a purpose-built aircraft.

Senior aircraft/engine analyst at Forecast International, Douglas Royce, who recently penned a report on the international trainer aircraft market, said there are arguments to be made for both new designs and off-the-shelf solutions.

“A clean-sheet design that is designed according to the requirements should be a better match than an existing aircraft,” he said. “But from an Air Force perspective, there is always an issue of developmental and program risk.”

The T-50 and T-100 will be in the running, even if they weren’t exactly designed to specifications.

The Boeing-Saab and Northrop Grumman teams probably won’t reveal what they have in mind “until the last minute,” he added.

As for the payoff, there is the possibility for international sales beyond the 350 aircraft the Air Force wants.

Potential customers like knowing that the U.S. military aircraft will be inline for steady upgrades throughout the years, and that they will benefit from this investment. Other countries don’t have a good reputation for customer support, and some of these aircraft will be in service for 30 or 40 years, he added.

It’s not a particularly active market but it does account for about 80 to 100 aircraft per year. “But it’s a valuable market in the sense that these are expensive jets with a lot of electronics,” he added.

And the trend now is to not only buy the trainer, but the ground simulators as part of a larger package.

The report forecasts a potential market for 748 jet trainers worth $13 billion from 2016 to 2025. The T-X accounts for only a few of those sales since it is not expected to go into production until the early 2020s.

The report, however, noted that “many world air arms are reducing the size of their fleets of fighter and attack jets. Fewer pilots need to be trained to fly military aircraft, and this leads to a corresponding reduction in the number of pilots in the training pipeline at any given time. That, consequently, reduces the need for large fleets of new training aircraft.”

Topics: Training and Simulation, Air Power

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