BAE Systems has formally unveiled the Hawk T2/128 as a contender for a future US Air Force contract to replace the Northrop T-38C Talon, and declared that its initial strategy is to offer the aircraft as a prime contractor.
The 8 September announcement was timed a few days before the start of the annual convention of the Air Force Association, which draws the service's top leadership.
BAE's unveiling also comes at least one year before the company expects the USAF to launch a competition to replace its T-38s. An acquisition strategy may not be known for several months, while funding for development and production remains non-existent in the USAF's long-term budgets.
BAE, however, is positioning the latest version of the 36-year-old Hawk design as the low-cost and no-risk option in a competition with younger rivals.
"It's not about who's got the fastest, shiniest aircraft that pulls the most g," says Ian Reason, BAE's business development director for the air training systems business. "It's a training aid."
The Hawk's competitors include the Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50 Golden Eagle and the Alenia Aermacchi M-346, which is rebranded as the T-100 integrated training system for the US market. Boeing also plans to enter the competition, possibly with a new, still-undisclosed design.
The Hawk would ideally be offered to the USAF as it exists today, with no extra risk presented by developmental technology, Reason says. The latest version of the Hawk allows pilots to fly fully simulated missions, engaging mock aerial targets and dodging fake surface-to-air missiles.
But an off-the-shelf Hawk would include certain features, such as a centre-stick control, that deviate from the USAF's operational fighters. All Lockheed jets - F-16, F-22 and F-35 - feature sidestick controls.
BAE's decision to offer the Hawk as a prime contractor may still evolve. At this time last year, Alenia planned to offer the M-346 to the USAF as a prime contractor, but backed down earlier this year and is now seeking a US partner.
With Northrop Grumman yet to publicly commit to a T-X strategy and with Boeing lacking an off-the-shelf trainer, both BAE and Alenia could be approached by US-based partners as the competition takes shape.
Asked whether BAE's commitment to offer the Hawk as a prime could change, executive vice-president of service sectors Lawrence Prior left himself an opening. "Our intent today is to prime," Prior says, "but we're good business people and we'll do the right thing for the customer."
BAE will deliver the UK Royal Air Force's last of 28 Hawk T2s later this year. The new type recently passed the 500 flight hour milestone since entering into service in April 2009.
Additional reporting by Craig Hoyle in London