[As promised, here's the link: US Air Force, industry prepare for T-38 replacement)
I'm amazed that the unfolding T-X contract battle, which I'm previewing in this week's magazine (I'll add the link after the story is posted online), isn't one of the biggest news stories in military aviation today.
It's a story that has it all. Controversy? Three largely foreign aircraft in competition with potential American rivals. Size? Projected initial orders range from 350 to 500 aircraft, with follow-on potential up to 1,000. Emotion? Replace the US Air Force's venerable Northrop T-38 Talon, the advanced jet trainer that has primed three generations of fighter and bomber pilots for combat.
And it's a story that's moving very fast. Until a few years ago, the USAF had delayed plans for a T-38 replacement past 2020. A fatal crash in 2008 caused by an over-fatigued aileron helped to change the plan. The in-service date was accelerated to 2017. Since then, the USAF has released two fairly explicit requests for information to industry, detailing what the service thinks it needs.
But there is one thing holding this story back, and it's a 'biggie'. So far, the USAF hasn't put any real funding into the budget for T-X, despite plans to award a full-scale development contract before 2013. Industry expects that oversight to be cleared up in the Fiscal 2012 budget request that will be released in early February.
The USAF will not lack for options. Three off the shelf options exist to replace the T-38: AleniaAermacchi M346 Master, BAE Systems Hawk 128 and Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50 Golden Eagle. The catch: All of them are primairly designed and built overseas, although final assembly of course would shift to the US for the T-X contract winner.
But the USAF doesn't have to settle for off the shelf. It's possible that Boeing and perhaps Northrop Grumman could propose an alternative route: design a "purpose-built" -- and, more importantly, "all-American" -- advanced jet trainer.
That option may please a faction of parochial lawmakers, but it will add at least $3 to $5 billion to the program price tag. Given that buying new trainers rank among the lowest of any air force's spending priorities, that may be asking a lot.
One more option still exists, and it's perhaps Northrop's favorite strategy. Rather than buy an all-new aircraft, simply launch a "super-SLEP" (service life extension program) on the T-38 fleet.