AIR FORCE NEWS
New Jet Trainer Taxiing for Low Rate Production
After overcoming developmental delays, the first prototype of the Air Force’s new combat trainer — the T-7A Red Hawk — rolled off the production line this year, hitting a major milestone. But the program still faces an uphill climb.
As Boeing moves toward the production phase of its T-X program — which includes aircraft, ground simulators and other training technology — to replace the aging T-38 Talons, the company is fighting to make sure it stays on schedule and on cost, an executive said. The aircraft’s progress could also open up opportunities for Boeing to pitch it to additional training programs and to international customers, analysts said.
Boeing is investing in the latest technology to make sure the platform stays competitive. First, the company is revolutionizing its own production technology. The engineering and development process has become more digitalized and includes the use of model-based design, said Paul Niewald, vice president of Boeing T-7 Programs.
Going digital has helped alleviate the impact of delays, specifically the work on the forward and aft fuselages, he said. The two parts can now be joined in less than 30 minutes — a 95 percent time reduction.
The change also resulted in a 75 percent increase in engineering quality, he said.
That time-saving effort has been much needed in the program. During high angle of attack testing, the company found a problem with wing rock in the platform’s design that had to be corrected, pushing back a Milestone C decision to November 2023, the company announced last year.
Even though the T-7A program is still targeting a 2024 initial operating capability, it is still trying to manage the effects of a global pandemic.
“COVID-19 caused delays for suppliers, which had a ripple effect on scheduled deliveries and production,” he said in an email. “Therefore, COVID-19 impacts did reflect on a delay in the proposed Milestone C date. We continue to identify opportunities to mitigate delays and gain back time.”
Boeing is also investing in capital renovations to its facilities that will “integrate the latest advancements in model-based engineering, automation, augmented and virtual reality, full-sized determinate assembly, modularity and more,” he said.
Additionally, Boeing is modernizing its approach to managing and processing data through a 10-year contract with L3Harris that was announced in September.
The processors will streamline data from different sensors on the aircraft using an open systems approach, said David Zack, L3Harris president for mission avionics.
“You can bring in multiple data feeds, whether they exist now or the additional growth capability that is coming in the future,” he said. “When we do that in an open fashion, it gives our customer the ability to scale quickly. It gives them the ability to do that at a very low cost.”
Two processors will be included on each Red Hawk, and each processor contains 10 slots. New sensor technology can be added and redundant sensors can be taken out of the processors through these slots, Zack explained. The company will also leverage commercial off-the-shelf technology and provide software that runs at different levels.
Both factors can speed upgrade cycles to one or two years when they have historically taken several, he noted.
Five of the 10 slots will be used on each aircraft, leaving the rest for expanded capabilities, according to L3Harris.
The same technology is on the F-35 jet fighter and the MQ-25 Stingray drone, making it more affordable for Boeing, Niewald said.
“The processors used in the T-7A Red Hawk share a commonality with other Boeing tactical aircraft including advanced thermal capabilities that provide significant processing power in a relatively small form factor,” Niewald said.
Zack added that having the processors on other aircraft has provided data to help get the system where it needs to be for the jet trainer.
“We’ve been able to do that over many years of experience in evolving these systems using our own internal research and development,” he said. “So that research and development really formed the foundation for that infrastructure that crosses the three platforms.”
Going forward, Boeing is focused on lowering the risk for the program through testing while it awaits a Milestone C decision from the Air Force, Niewald said.
The program still could face future cost growth because of schedule delays, according to the Government Accountability Office’s annual weapons program assessment published in June. The report noted the cost per unit already increased less than one percent from 2018 to 2020 to nearly $7.2 million.
While procurement costs went up one percent during the same time frame, development cost went down about 2.5 percent, according to the report.
“However, while officials told us the fixed-price development contract limits the Air Force’s cost risk, it still faces schedule delays and the risk of future cost growth as the program moves into production,” the report said.
Niewald said the program is constantly looking for ways to decrease risk.
Taking its time with the test phase is one way that Boeing can keep concerns at bay, the GAO report noted. It draws attention to the roughly 18 months between the end of the design phase and the fully integrated prototype.
“Our prior work shows such testing is key to avoiding late discovery of design deficiencies that could cause costly, time-intensive rework,” the report said.
The prototype aircraft is expected to undergo high angle of attack testing around the first of the year, according to Boeing.
“The testing will explore the aircraft’s departure resistance at the edges of the maneuver envelope, giving the digitally designed aircraft the opportunity to prove out its stability and performance for future fighter and bomber pilots,” Niewald said.
Boeing’s aircraft have flown more than 430 engineering and manufacturing development test flights to date, which “is burning down risk” and “enabling a shorter [engineering, manufacturing and design] timeline,” Niewald added.
This year, the prototype aircraft will fly out of the St. Louis area a few dozen more times during the EMD phase of testing, he said. During each flight, the platforms are observed from Edwards Air Force Base in California using a digital link that distributes the test operations, “giving subject matter experts from the Air Force and Boeing the opportunity to work together in real-time.”
Niewald declined to say when the engineering, manufacturing and design phase will end to transition to low-rate initial production. The GAO report still estimated a November 2023 Milestone C production decision.
“Boeing is working in partnership with the U.S. Air Force to complete our EMD contract,” he said. “Deliveries for [low-rate initial production] will be awarded as EMD is completed.”
The first of five test aircraft will be delivered to the Air Education Training Command in 2023, but two fatigue and static articles will remain in St. Louis for “testing and proof of airframe integrity,” Niewald said.
Meanwhile, Boeing’s work on the technology behind the T-7A training system could help keep it competitive beyond the Air Force’s program.
The company has expressed interest in producing an armed version of the Red Hawk, which could open up the doors for the light attack aircraft market internationally, said Ray Jaworowski, a senior analyst at defense and aerospace market outlook firm Forecast International.
“They built in a lot of growth potential into the design, so there is sufficient space in potential to incorporate a radar, to incorporate electronic warfare equipment,” he said.
The aircraft has a weapon station under the fuselage, but more could be added on the wings, he noted.
The T-7A could serve as a replacement for the Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet and Northrop Grumman F-5s that are flown in 26 countries around the world and are decades old, he said.
“The design is very flexible in that regard, and that was very, very smart,” he said. “Boeing showed a lot of foresight in doing that, so that opens up a lot of potential roles for the T-7.”
Other opportunities to sell its training systems have opened up for Boeing inside the military, Jaworowski said.
A request for information was released last year for the Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Trainer, another system which could be used to simulate adversary planes. Though there was no number officially attached, he said there could be hundreds of the aircraft purchased.
Jaworowski said the service might be interested in cutting costs through efficiencies. “Choosing the T-7 would give the Air Force some obvious synergies in terms of commonality,” he noted.
The Navy also published a Sources Sought Notice for a Tactical Surrogate Aircraft last year, which mentioned the potential for 64 aircraft. The Navy will have to replace its T-45 Goshawk trainers, of which the service has nearly 200 in service, Jaworowski said.
“Right now, the services tend to use two-seat versions of their existing fighters for that role, but there is no two-seat F-35,” he noted. “There’s a gap there.”
However, Boeing is not without its competitors. The Italian company Leonardo’s M-346 and Korea Aerospace Industries’ T-50 — in partnership with Lockheed Martin — are two other jet trainers that could drive a wedge between the services.
But again, the T-7A’s win in the Air Force’s T-X program makes a compelling argument, he said.
“That certainly would give it maybe half a leg up on the competition,” he said.
Congress and the Pentagon seem to support the program, Jaworowski said. He noted budgetary risks can affect any program, but it seems relatively safe.
Richard Aboulafia, managing director at forecasting firm AeroDynamic Advisory, agreed that the program seems relatively safe, but warned that excessive schedule delays could cause the Air Force to seek out interim capabilities.
Selling the trainer internationally is likely to only interest a few nations, Aboulafia said. He noted militaries around the world aren’t willing to shell out as much as the U.S. Air Force, and some allies already send their pilots to train in the states.
“I’m afraid that historically the market’s been pretty dismal, and it’s gotten even worse because you know a few decades ago, you just didn’t have international competition in this class,” he said.