Lockheed Considering Offering T-50A for Air Force Light Attack Aircraft Experiment
As the competition for the U.S. Air Force’s new advanced pilot trainer system progresses, Lockheed Martin executives are confident that their T-50A jet trainer will be ready ahead of schedule and with cost savings that its competitors will be unable to beat.
But in the event it doesn’t win the T-X contract — or even if it does — the company is examining whether the aircraft would be a suitable fit for the service’s experiment to acquire a commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft to provide light attack and close-air support on a budget, also known as OA-X, Lockheed Martin's executive vice president of aeronautics said March 21.
“We are evaluating right now” whether to participate in the invitation, Rob Weiss told reporters at the company’s media day in Arlington, Virginia. “We’re having some initial conversations about that right now … if the T-50 or some other option might make sense.”
The Air Force March 17 released an invitation to industry to participate in the OA-X competition. The service will be looking for mission profiles, carriage requirements, mission duration, supportability, supply chains and manufacturing readiness, as well as the ability to operate off a 6,000-foot runway or shorter, service officials previously said.
Weiss said the company is looking into whether the T-50A could fit those requirements. “The way it currently is described, it looks like there are lower cost and much lower capability airplanes than the trainers” that could fit the bill, Weiss said.
But as it stands, the aircraft is “ready now” to win the end-to-end jet trainer system competition, Weiss said.
The company has “not really spent much time thinking about what happens” if it does not win the T-X competition, he noted. Lockheed partnered with Korea Aerospace Industries to modify its T-50 aircraft for T-X. The Air Force aims to buy up to 350 aircraft and associated ground-based systems to replace its aging T-38 fleet, It needs updated aircraft to train its pilots to fly fifth-generation aircraft including the F-22 fighter and the F-35 joint strike fighter.
“T-50A meets all of the requirements. .... We feel very positive about it,” Weiss said, noting that the two completed T-50A aircraft have been performing regular flight operations and testing in Greenville, South Carolina. Last week, the aircraft completed all of the pre-engineering and manufacturing development test points that the Air Force has required. That flight test data is due by June 28, and Lockheed plans to continue performing tests and analyzing the results before submitting the data on that date, Weiss said.
The test points are meant to demonstrate that the aircraft can achieve a high sustained G-force acceleration, a high angle of attack, and maneuver within those regimes, Weiss said, adding that the aircraft have received “very positive feedback” from Lockheed test pilots. “It confirms our decision to go with the off-the-shelf” product, he said.
Although the Air Force’s request for proposals — due March 30 — sets a desired initial operating capability date in 2024, the T-50A could be ready to deliver in 2022, years ahead of any clean-sheet design, Weiss said.
“I am convinced that it can be delivered six years earlier than a clean-sheet design,” he said. “Based on all the scheduling we’ve done ... it would be four years after 2024 before a clean sheet will actually be delivered.”
Lockheed had previously considered building a new aircraft before opting to work with KAI to produce the T-50A, but their analysis showed that a commercial-off-the-shelf product would be the best option, Weiss said. “One of the biggest challenges we foresaw … was meeting the 2024 initial operational capability requirement.”
The Air Force has not committed to wanting an earlier IOC date, but “perhaps post-competition, that would be a conversation that would occur,” he said. “If there is a desire for an earlier IOC, we will be ready.”
But there is still a broader international market for trainers and light attack aircraft that the T-50A “will compete in, either way,” he said.
Two teams of airframers are currently offering clean-sheet designs for the trainer competition: The Boeing Co. with Sweden-based Saab, and the Sierra Nevada Corp. with Turkish Aerospace Industries. Leonardo plans to compete with Alenia Aermacchi’s T-100, a variant of its M-346 trainer, after several attempts to partner with other companies.
Northrop Grumman previously planned a clean-sheet design before the company announced in February that it had pulled out of the competition.
Weiss did not claim to know why Northrop chose to withdraw, but noted “ when I think back to where we were two years ago in making that choice [whether to submit a clean-sheet design], I think we all envisioned that’s where we do not want to be in 2017.”