Airbus is developing a new-generation advanced jet trainer for Spain, but how will this future platform fare on the export market, with air arms starting to look at the recapitalisation of their training fleets across the globe? Jon Lake details the Airbus Future Jet Trainer and explores its potential.
Airbus has unveiled its new AFJT (Airbus Future Jet Trainer) aircraft, which is initially being developed to meet a Ejército del Aire (Spanish Air Force) requirement, but the company hopes the platform will find many more customers.
“We believe this aircraft should not only serve Spain, but should also serve Europe,” Raúl Tena, Airbus' sales manager for combat aircraft, said, giving France and Finland as examples of potential customers. The new aircraft is the first genuinely ‘new generation’ trainer to be developed since Boeing’s T-7A Red Hawk, and is optimised to meet training needs of air forces operating fifth-generation and next-generation combat aircraft.
Some analysts and observers have questioned why Spain is launching a new trainer aircraft programme so soon after ordering the Pilatus PC-21. But when the Spanish government called for tenders for 24 pilot training aircraft and four simulators in 2019, it was clear the selected aircraft would only replace the Spanish Air Force’s CASA C-101EB Aviojet jet trainers in the basic (Phase 2) training role. This aircraft, known as the E.25 Mirlo (Blackbird, but also nicknamed ‘Culo Pollo’ – Chicken's Bum) in Spanish Air Force service, is expected to be retired in September after 41 years. It was understood that further aircraft types would be required to complete what was to be an all-new pilot training programme.
The training system
Spain’s existing pilot training pipeline sees students undertake preliminary training on the ENAER T-35C (E.26 Tamiz), operated by the Escuela Elemental (791 Escuadron) of the General Air Academy at San Javier Air Base. They then move on to the C-101EB Aviojets of the Escuela Basica (793 Escuadron) for basic (Phase 2) training, and then finally to 231 Escuadron of Ala 23 (the 23rd Wing) at Talavera la Real (Badajoz) Air Base where the Northrop/CASA F-5M Freedom Fighter is used for advanced and lead in fighter training (Phases 3 and 4).
The Pilatus PC-21 will initially replace the air force’s C-101EB Aviojets, while the AFJT will replace the F-5Ms, and will also be used for the latter part of the Phase 2 syllabus. The 40 T-35C Pilláns used for primary (Phase 1) training will then be replaced by the Pilatus PC-21, which will also continue to deliver much of the Phase 2 syllabus – though Spain recognises that while the PC-21 can go some way towards replicating fast jet handling, there is still a significant performance gap between it and a frontline fast jet aircraft. This is especially significant when it comes to air combat training.
Tim Davies, a former Royal Air Force BAE Systems Hawk T2 instructor who is now strategy director for Aeralis explained: “With a turboprop, the ‘pictures’ the student sees are all wrong – the truth is that to learn to fight in a jet, you just need to train in a jet."
The AFJT is also likely to replace the Aviojets of the Patrulla Águila aerobatic team (794 Escuadron), the Grupo de Escuelas de Matacán and Grupo 54 of the Centro Logístico de Armamento y Experimentación at Madrid/Torrejón. The new Airbus advanced trainer will be much more than a simple replacement of the F-5M and Aviojet. It will allow some training to be downloaded from frontline types and promises to reduce the hours flown during operational conversion, leaving more frontline flying hours available.
Selecting the AFJT
Spain is known to have evaluated the Leonardo M-346 Master, the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 Golden Eagle and the Russian Yakovlev Yak-130, and a deal seemed possible that would have seen Korea receiving the Airbus A400M Atlas heavy-lift tactical transport, and partly paying for them with the supply of T-50 trainers to Spain.
But the head of the Spanish Air Force, Gen Javier Salto Martinez Avial, came out strongly in favour of procuring a Spanish aircraft to meet the requirement, not least because “it would create jobs directly in Spain”. Many Spanish officers also favoured an indigenous trainer because it would allow development of a unique and optimised logistics chain and also autonomous, sovereign software.
When Airbus started work on the new trainer aircraft, France and Germany were identified as potential partners, as they would need a similar new generation advanced trainer to prepare pilots for the FCAS (Future Combat Air System). This would have allowed development costs to be divided between the three countries and the programme to access funding from the European Union. But, as Javier Escribano, head of Future Combat Programmes with Airbus Defense and Space recently observed, only Spain showed real interest in the project, and timescales meant that “if we have to wait for them we would not be ready in time for the Spanish needs".
Becoming a purely Spanish programme was not entirely unwelcome for some. Airbus estimated that for every €100m invested in the AFJT, between 2,100 and 2,500 jobs would be created in Spain and €36m returned to the exchequer in taxes and social contributions.
Fernando Peces, head of the Eurofighter programme in Spain, said: “The AFJT Program would be an important engine of the [Spanish] economy and a generator of highly qualified and quality jobs, contributing to the creation of stable and high-value employment with a high impact. The knowledge generated in engineering and design would also serve as a generator of new opportunities for the future of the national industry. "It is the most important aeronautical development program in Spain today.”
This will serve Airbus’ ambition of giving Spanish industry greater capabilities in terms of designing, manufacturing, certifying and maintaining aircraft and systems. “It is a great opportunity for the Spanish industry in simulators, sensors, equipment. We are going to make all of the avionics; the propulsion systems will also be new and specific to this model. It will be a latest generation aircraft.” Peces said.
The AFJT programme will position Spain as an industrial and technological nation capable of playing a leading role in the aerospace and defence sector, and represents the country’s bid to gain greater participation in the trinational FCAS programme, while also lining up the new AFJT as the trainer of choice for the FCAS itself. Development of the aircraft promises to help Airbus to maintain the very skills and capabilities that it will need to play more of a part in the FCAS programme, in which Spain notionally has an equal share with France and Germany.
During the 2019 Military Flight Training conference, Col Enrique Martínez Vallas, head of the Directorate General of Armament and Material (DGAM) Trainer Aircraft Programme Office, provided the first public glimpse of the planned new advanced trainer, which was then reportedly designated as the AFJ (Airbus Flexible Jet), and also as the C-102.
Gabriel García Mesuro, the project’s chief engineer, said the aircraft was known as the C-101 NG from October 2016 to January 2019 and has “evolved [into the] Airbus Future Jet Trainer – an airplane designed to cover the needs of Ejercito del Aire for the replacement of the F-5M fleet”.
But the AFJT is intended to be a complete integrated training system in which the aircraft itself will be just one element, alongside a range of simulators and synthetic training devices. The aircraft will operate within a live virtual-constructive (LVC) training environment, perhaps including a virtual wingman, or with a student in a ground-based simulator flying as part of the mission.
The aircraft itself bears passing resemblance to the EADS Mako – an unflown advanced trainer and light attack aircraft project undertaken by the forerunner of Airbus Defence and Space from the late 1990s onwards. But while the AFJT and Mako shared a similar layout, there are significant differences in configuration and size – Fernando Peces dismissed suggestions of any link: “There is nothing of the Mako in AFJT. We are talking about another time, another era.
“We have not dusted off the Mako; we have started from scratch with the Spanish requirements.” The AFJT bears closer resemblance to the KAI T-50 than it does to the Mako, albeit with a more ‘stepped’ cockpit and drooped nose giving the instructor in the back seat a better view forward, with a smaller fin carried further forward, less leading edge sweep on the wing and slightly more forward sweep on the trailing edge.
A more interesting comparison is with the Boeing T-7A Red Hawk – the US Air Force’s (USAF's) next-generation advanced jet trainer. The two aircraft are very similar, apart from the T-7A’s twin fins and anhedral on the wing. The AFJT is designed to be highly manoeuvrable and capable of high speeds, able to provide a student pilot with a reasonable approximation of the performance and handling characteristics of aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet, as well as future systems.
Though some sources have suggested that the new aircraft will have a supersonic capability, in order to meet the required sustained rate of turn, it is probably more accurately described as being a transonic jet trainer – easily capable of exceeding the speed of sound in a dive, but perhaps not in level flight. Transonic flight is typically defined as speeds in the range of Mach 0.72 to 1.0 (600–770 mph at sea level). The AFJT has a maximum take-off weight of about seven tonnes and Airbus has therefore specified an engine with 5,500kg of thrust. The AFJT team is believed to be looking at derivatives of the Eurofighter’s Eurojet EJ200 engine or the Dassault Rafale’s Safran M88. Both would be modified for single-engined applications, and would retain afterburners.
The cockpits of the AFJT will be capable of being rapidly reconfigured to allow it to better simulate particular frontline aircraft types – including the F/A-18 and the Eurofighter. It will also incorporate on-board simulation and emulation systems, allowing an accurate simulation of the use of weapons, targeting systems and sensors.
Made in Spain
Airbus is committed to producing an aircraft that will be almost entirely Spanish, only using foreign equipment where Spanish industry can not produce an alternative, though some use will be made of existing avionics equipment, as tight timescales and cost constraints will not permit everything to be designed from scratch.
Airbus led a consortium of Spanish companies and will be responsible for design, integration and assembly of the new “Made in Spain” aircraft. Other companies involved include ITP Aero (which will work on the engine, though this is expected to be supplied by the Eurojet consortium or by Safran); Indra, providing on-board systems, simulators and training devices; GMV to furnish software and flight control systems; Compañía Española de Sistemas Aeronáuticos SA (CESA, also known as Héroux-Devtek Spain) the landing gear and actuators; and Tecnobit to provide and integrate communications systems. The programme will also involve a number of specialist suppliers and smaller companies.
Fernando Peces has estimated that the Spanish Air Force would need between 50 and 55 aircraft, and there would also be strong international interest in the type. This could allow the AFJT to take a significant slice of an overall market that is variously estimated at between 500 and 800 advanced jet trainer aircraft, up to 2029. It should be noted that the latest Airbus market estimate of 800 advanced trainer/LIFT aircraft (excluding aggressors, etc), is broadly in line with other market estimates – for example by Aeralis and Boeing.
Many in-service advanced trainers are in need of immediate or imminent replacement, including any remaining Alpha Jets, most first-generation Hawks (pre-Hawk 60 series), all F-5s and T-38s used in an advanced training role and the various Kawasaki T-4s, Rockwell T-2 Buckeyes, Saab 105s, SIAI S-211s and Soko G-4 Super Galebs that remain in use.
A growing market
Apart from Spain, France and Finland have been cited as potential near-term customers, while Germany could also be interested, if it abandons its lengthy training presence in the US.
In the longer term, the AFJT could give the Airbus partners a trainer to sell alongside German and Spanish-built Eurofighters, Rafales and eventually FCAS, in just the way that the UK has sought to sell Hawks alongside its Typhoon export sales. If France supports the aircraft, and if it comes to be viewed as the trainer of choice for the Rafale, you could see Qatar buying the type relatively quickly. This represents a significant potential market for new advanced training aircraft.
Some analysts and commentators have suggested the AFJT is entering an already overcrowded marketplace, but this does not really stand up to closer examination, as many of the AFJT’s supposed competitors are now showing their age, are flawed or limited in some way, or come with political baggage, unwelcome ties or ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations).
Moreover, while the M-346 and T-50 are sometimes presented as being potential competitors to the new AFJT, they are actually previous-generation aircraft – both conceived and designed during the 1990s. They enjoy competitive performance characteristics and are part of wider training systems, with simulators, mission planning systems and computer-based training devices, and they also include some degree of embedded simulation systems.
But compared with Boeing’s T-X-winning T-7A Red Hawk, the T-50 and M-346 represent an earlier generation, which should surprise no one, since they were designed 25 years before! Judged by simplistic ‘Top Trumps’ criteria, the T-50 and M-346 do not look a great deal more old-fashioned than newer machines, but they were the product of a much more traditional design and manufacturing process, and as a result were fundamentally less advanced.
The T-7A is a generation apart from these older competitors – and the Turkish Aerospace Industries Hürjet and the new AFJT represent the first same-generation competitors to the Boeing jet.
These aircraft are modern, state-of-the-art trainers, with cutting-edge glass cockpits, open architecture avionics systems and advanced onboard sensors and/or emulated/ simulated systems, allowing them to operate more seamlessly in a more complex live, virtual-constructive environment. Their cockpits are designed to accommodate a wider range of anthropometric models (taking account of the growing number of female pilots). They are optimised for low operating costs and were designed from the ground up to leverage advanced support, logistics and sustainment arrangements.
They were designed from the outset to be built using model-based design and engineering and modern low-cost manufacturing techniques and for a compressed developmental test and evaluation cycle, further reducing cost.
This is what sets aircraft like the T-7A and AFJT apart from older-generation trainers like the T-50 and M-346, and the Hawk T2/AJT. It isn't about low-observable technology, performance or configuration.
These more modern, more advanced trainers will be cheaper to build than their older competitors, less expensive to operate and support and more capable. This was how Boeing was able to ensure that the all-new T-7A could beat the existing, fully amortised T-50 and M-346 on price in the USAF’s T-X trainer competition.
It is not hard to imagine that Airbus should be able to bring a similarly sophisticated and compelling advanced trainer project to fruition. The AFTJ’s open architecture and modular design are intended to quickly and easily allow the addition and integration of new avionics, equipment, systems and capabilities, and with a strong and continuing demand for light combat and “aggressor” aircraft, the AFJT could spawn dedicated light fighter and light attack variants.
Looking ahead to the future of Airbus
Airbus reportedly plans to respond to the Spanish Air Force requirement ‘imminently’, with a first phase response. A second phase will be submitted before the end of the year, with detailed costings.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the AFJT is the fact that Spain’s government has not yet allocated any funding for a new advanced trainer aircraft, and this will make it hard to meet a 2027-2028 in-service date. But Fernando Peces has said there could be a “bridging solution” in the form of funding from the Ministry of Science. If funding is released, a prototype could make its first flight in 2025, according to head of the AFJT programme, Abel Nin. If it does, Boeing will suddenly find itself with a real fight on its hands.
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