Previewing T-X: The biggest USAF contract nobody is talking about

[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.  


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17 Responses to Previewing T-X: The biggest USAF contract nobody is talking about

  1. Dave 21 June, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

    With the T-50, even though it’s ostensibly Korean, is it really? I mean given how much F-16 technology is in there, and how much of the aircraft is built directly by Lockheed, by the time they propose a USAF variant, it will probably be all-American. Out of the three foreign competitors, it’s probably the best choice to train folks on 5th Gen fighters.

    If you talk to Tyndall’s 43rd FS guys, they’ll tell you some of the problems training UPT/IFF guys for the F-22 B-course is that the T-38 can’t pull 9Gs, has no radar, and can’t aerial refuel. They actually send the kids off to a special IFF and a short course in the F-16 before they ever set foot in the Raptor since certain physiological tolerances need to be verified and skills taught and then verified in a 9G/advanced radar environment under controlled (i.e two seat) conditions. That’s directly from their Sq/CC.

    Further, the Navy already operates the T-45C, which is a variant of the BAE Hawk, so it’s not exactly like the USAF is setting precedent here.

  2. AirSix 21 June, 2010 at 1:15 pm #

    Or maybe Ross Perot Jr. will just lend the USAF his T-38 (that’s it, pictured above your article) and all budding airmen can be Thunderbirds For A Day!

  3. Lightndattic 21 June, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Pick the best trainer that additionally has the best point defense capability and use them for interception duties in the continental US.

  4. alloycowboy 21 June, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    I totally agree!

    Sending a stealth F-22 or F-35 to intercept a jet airliner is a little over kill.

  5. DJF 21 June, 2010 at 4:47 pm #

    The Airforce should pick the Italian M-346 if for nothing else so I can see Congress go crazy when told that the plane is based on the Russian Yak130

  6. EG 21 June, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    Out of business, but this could be an COTS alternative. Although certified to Part 23 it might be a little weak.

  7. Big D 21 June, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    I concur–we need some sort of trainer that can teach students about using radar, AAMs, refueling, etc., and we might as well learn the lesson of the Hawk and make it capable of pitching in during an emergency. However, some of those features (particularly the radar) sound like they might be a bit expensive for an aircraft that is going to have trainees throwing it around the sky (and occasionally into the ground). If it can be done cheaply, then I say go for it–again, look at the multi-role capability of trainers like the Hawk.

    If it can’t, then I’d have one dirt-cheap design for teaching trainees how to fly a jet, and a second one (a B-model, like the F/A-50? old F-16s?) to teach those who are going on to pointy-noses how to *fight* a jet.

  8. EG 21 June, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    Too bad the Cessna JPATS didn’t have the speed. I would think somewhere around .85 mach would probably work quite well.

  9. Herkeng130 21 June, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    Why not just use F-16Ds from AMARC? They can limit the performance via software to meet trainers to the level of the pilot and it will be able to grow with them.

  10. EG 21 June, 2010 at 6:30 pm #

    I would think fuel burn, MTBF & engine overhaul costs. (even if they derate) would still make it too expensive.

  11. Herkeng130 21 June, 2010 at 10:14 pm #

    EG, we already have the aircraft, and they are already engineered so that would be a huge cut in cost. What are the requirements for T-X?

  12. EG 21 June, 2010 at 10:19 pm #

    But that’s rub, different pot’ o’ money to buy, I happen to agree that it would make sense to use airframes from AMARC.

    But you and i don’t live by bean, we only die by the bean.

    Which is why, my friend…beancounters rule the world.

  13. Sundog 22 June, 2010 at 12:01 am #

    The TF-16 is really the only existing plane that makes sense to replace the T-38. IMHO, the TF-16 would have the glass cockpit, but not all of the offensive and defensive avionics systems, as it wouldn’t require them. I would keep a RADAR on the airframe, but it would only need to be a minimum requirements RADAR, more for training procedures, etc. I would use a non-after-burning version of the F-100/F-110, as it wouldn’t need that much performance and it would save on the fuel/maintenance costs.

    The main reasons to go with the TF-16 are;
    a) The production line already exists and is still in operation. b) It keeps American jobs here (airframe and powerplant). c) The infrastructure already exists to maintain the airframe and the engine. d) The F-16′s performance is already well understood and it’s a known quantity within the USAF pilot community. e) In terms of handling and performance, it comes the closest to actually being a replacement for the T-38.

    Unfortunately, such a choice couldn’t be milked for all of the money it’s worth and it doesn’t fit the “shiny new toy” crowd requirement. So the chances of it being considered are quite slim.

  14. Jimmy 22 June, 2010 at 1:30 am #


    The fuel consumption is very significant. You want something that is cheap to fly, in fuel terms, so that you can increase flight hours with the same amount of fuel. The fuel savings alone will pay for a new plane versus resurrecting an F-16.

    Plus, [assuming you're not buying ANY parts, but cannibalizing], the high-wear parts will limit your fleet size dramatically.

  15. irtusk 22 June, 2010 at 7:17 pm #

    it’s almost like we need a hi/lo concept for trainers

    a simple, cheap, fuel efficient basic trainer to teach fundamental skills

    and a more potent, 9-g, modern radar, modern weapons, air-refuellable advanced trainer

  16. Herkeng130 23 June, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    irtusk, exactly right… we have the PC-9 err.. the Texan II for the basic and it does a hell of a job but even the T-38 cannot give the pilots what they need…If what Dave says is true, The F-22 pilots have to step into an F-16 before they move onto the F-22 right now as it is. How many pilots being trained and what platforms really need the performance of the T-38, how many need more?

    They have the parts, training and engines for the bird. Introducing in a new aircraft… and from the looks of it, a foreign aircraft will step up the cost… training and parts/supply logistics are very costly. Its not just about hardware initial equipment, it is about maintainability. You are very right… the F-16 might be a bit extreme as a “trainer” but if the pilots going into the F-22 are using them anyhow… then what aircraft would you offer to take its place?

    The T-38 cannot sustain the g-load needed and sadly is showing her age.

    -The BAE Systems Hawk 128 looks good as we already have T-45s but she can only reach m1.2 in a dive

    -Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50 Golden Eagle looks alright and we can fit our own ge F404 engines in her and with this would be the thrust king out of the three. How much is really common between her and the F-16?

    -AleniaAermacchi M346 Master is subsonic and I am not sure would have much of a chance between the other two.

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