Waiting for a Decision


The proposals are in. Now it is up to the United States Air Force to decide the winner. The deadline for the US Air Force’s T-X trainer competition was June 28. The Air Force will choose the winner before the end of the year.

Further delays in the T-X programme appear unlikely, or at least unwise. There has already been a seven-year slippage in its schedule since 2011. As more F-35A Lightning IIs enter service with the Air Force, there is a strong impetus to deliver a trainer intended to produce pilots for fifth generation fighters as soon as possible. On June 23, the House Armed Services Committee’s Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee explicitly stated that it does not want to see any more delays to the T-X, currently scheduled to achieve initial operational capability in FY2024 and full operational capability in FY2034.

The T-X Competition

The T-X winner will receive a contract, estimated as being worth some $16 billion, for five engineering and manufacturing development aircraft followed by some 350 US Air Force aircraft built in low-rate initial production and full-rate production. Follow-on US Air Force orders and export sales are likely. Among the many countries watching the T-X competition, Australia needs to produce F-35 pilots and wants to replace its current BAE Hawks within ten years. If Belgium decides to buy F-35s, as is likely, it may go with the T-X to replace its Alpha Jet trainers. Other international buyers, while they may be interested in taking advantage of the economies of scale available through buying the US Air Force’s advanced trainer, are unlikely to require the demanding performance embodied in the US Air Force’s key performance parameters (KPPs) that demand a high level of performance, especially in manoeuvrability, from the T-X competitors

While the results of test flying taking place before June 28 may be considered by the Air Force in deciding the winner, there will not be a formal fly-off between the competing designs. What remains uncertain is whether the winner – provided it meets the KPPs – will be determined by its performance or by its price. The credibility of these figures, provided in the proposals by the manufacturers, is a critical issue.

Three teams have announced they have submitted T-X proposals. Boeing- Saab is competing with its clean-sheet design TX. The second Boeing-Saab TX prototype flew for the first time on April 24 at Boeing’s St Louis, Missouri facility. Lockheed-Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) is competing with its T-50A, an upgraded version of the T-50 currently in service with the Republic of Korea Air Force. The US-based subsidiary of Italy’s Leonardo, Leonardo DRS (which split with former teammate Raytheon in January), is offering its T-100. This is an upgraded version of the Leonardo M-346 design. Stavatti Aerospace announced it was going to submit its Javelin Jet trainer, but little more has been heard about this design. Other possible submissions, including the Freedom Trainer from a Turkish Aircraft Industries (TAI)-Sierra Nevada team, appear not to have materialised. Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and Textron all dropped out earlier this year.

US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein has not been disappointed by possible competitors deciding not to bid. Rather, he sees this as evidence that the Air Force’s efforts to be more open with industry about what it really wants – something that has often been opaque in previous procurements – has allowed industry to make more informed bid/no bid decisions. Speaking in Washington on February 7, he said: “As long as we have a competition, and it is an informed competition as a result of this ongoing dialogue, I think we are in a good place.” He showed no interest in expanding the competition by dialling back the KPPs.

Is it all about the Money?

Air Force leaders read the newspapers. From them and information on the competitors (all are publicly traded corporations), they can see that each one generally has a good balance sheet. It may appear to the Air Force it can expect to be offered a good price on procurement. Reportedly, one of the reasons that Raytheon walked away from its partnership with Leonardo was that it did not see itself being able to make money producing a T-X that would meet the KPPs yet still be competitive in price. No team is likely to have submitted a bid where it ends up losing money on each airplane as it is rolls out of the factory with the intention of making it up over the life of the programme, as Boeing did with its first contract for KC-46A Pegasus tankers. Boeing’s out-of-pocket costs on that programme have been punishing.

The US Air Force’s presumed emphasis on cost is thought to give the advantage to the T-50A, a proven design dating back to the 1980s. Its cost estimates ($21 to $30 million per aircraft in production quantities) are based on years of experience. The Boeing-Saab TX (whose cost parameters are largely unknown), as a clean-sheet design, offers improved design and manufacturing technology and savings inherent in Boeing’s experience with the cost-shaving commercial market. Boeing’s Phantom Works has invested extensively in developing the capability to produce high-technology aircraft in a limited timeframe. The T-100 procurement cost has been estimated at $25 to $30 million, but Leonardo claims it has the lowest procurement cost of all. Indeed, the T-100’s M-346 version cost significantly less than the T-50 in Poland’s trainer competition, which it won. However, the US Air Force’s lack of a track record with Leonardo, proposing to build the trainers at a new factory, may undercut the credibility of its costing.

The first test flight of Lockheed Martin’s second T-50A configured aircraft occurred on July 25, 2016.
Lockheed Martin

All three competitors use engines designed and built in the United States (two in the case of the T-100). All three types will have final assembly facilities in the United States: St Louis, Missouri (with a Boeing-estimated gain of 1,800 jobs), for Boeing-Saab; Greenville, South Carolina, for Lockheed Martin-KAI; and Tuskegee, Alabama, for Leonardo DRS. (The location for the proposed plant was moved from Meridian, Mississippi, when Raytheon dropped out). The amount of foreign content in production aircraft may also have an impact; Leonardo claims it will build its trainers in Alabama with less foreign content than Boeing builds into its airliners in South Carolina.

The impact of cost may – providing the KPPs are met – shift some of the Air Force’s weight in its decision away from the T-X itself to the other elements of each teams’ submissions. All three proposals were required to include embedded training systems as part of a groundbased training system (GBTS) package. The highest-visibility part of this package is some 40 weapon system trainers/ operational flight trainer simulators. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are acting as prime contractors for their teams’ simulators. Leonardo is using simulators produced by CAE.

Electronic classrooms, a training management information system, parttask trainers and instructor and mission planning stations are required to be included in the GBTS to equip five Air Education and Training Command bases.

The rationale behind the Air Force requirement for an integrated trainersimulator system is to ensure that (relatively) low-cost simulator time can be used to hone skills learned during high-cost flight time (currently some $9,000 per hour for the T-38C Talon advanced trainers). The team, if there is one, that can claim an advantage in its GBTS could end up shaping the result of the competition.

Who Wins?

The accepted wisdom is Washington is that, with the Air Force facing the bow wave of increased aircraft procurement costs into the next decade, cost will be above all other considerations if the aircraft meets the KPPs.

The odds are reckoned by some familiar with the programme as being around 60:40 in favour of the T-50A, with a few points left over for an upset by the outsider T-100. Accepted wisdom in Washington is often wrong, however, as anyone that has read a newspaper since the last election doubtlessly realises.

Lockheed Martin’s two T-50A aircraft, TX-1 and TX-2, are based at Greenville Donaldson Airport, South Carolina. The US Air Force’s presumed emphasis on cost is thought to give the advantage to the T-50A which is estimated to cost $21 and $30 million per aircraft in production quantities. Lockheed Martin wins outright based on availability of good images of their jets!
Lockheed Martin