Boeing may propose new airframe to replace T-38s

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Boeing could propose developing a "purpose-built" airframe as one of several options to replace the US Air Force's fleet of Northrop T-38 jet trainers, say industry officials.

The potential Boeing offer throws a twist into the competitive field for the T-X contract, which could be worth $10 billion and which the USAF has suggested could range from 350 to 500 new jets.

 
© Steve White/US Air Force
The USAF has more than 550 T-8 Talons

Only existing airframes such as the Alenia Aermacchi M-346, BAE Systems Hawk and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI)/Lockheed Martin T-50 have so far been proposed as major candidates.

According to industry officials, the Boeing concept pre-supposes that the USAF does not want to select a future trainer aircraft that was developed in a previous decade. The service plans to reach initial operational capability for the T-X fleet in 2017 and operate the type for 30-40 years.

Boeing's concept also may add a "homegrown" dimension to a competition dominated by aircraft developed substantially in foreign countries.

The T-50 is assembled in South Korea, although Lockheed helped to design and manufacture the aircraft. The M-346 is assembled in Italy, but 52% of its parts are sourced in the USA, including its Honeywell F124 engines.

USAF officials have accelerated the T-X acquisition process by one year, with a request for proposals scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2011. The first aircraft delivery is expected in 2014.

Developing a new airframe within that timeframe could be difficult. Giuseppe Giordo, president and chief executive of Alenia North America, has estimated that developing and certificating a new advanced trainer to compete with the M-346 would cost $3 billion and take six years to complete.

Alenia plans to offer the M-346 for the T-X contract, but is evaluating whether to act as a prime or subcontractor. It has confirmed that Boeing is among the US companies that it has discussed as a potential partner. Alenia and Boeing are already teamed to offer the M-346 to certain international customers, such as Singapore.

The T-X contract would replace the USAF's fleet of more than 550 T-38s, the youngest of which were delivered in the early 1970s.

USAF officials have also asked industry to propose options for a light attack version and a navalised version, with the latter to replace the US Navy's Boeing/BAE T-45 Goshawk.