There is no doubt that the US Air Force needs a new advanced jet trainer to replace the venerable Northrop T-38 Talon, but how and when the service will pay for its next-generation T-X is still an open question.
“There is consensus that we are going to need to replace the T-38, and timing is the issue with that,” says Gen Edward Rice, commander of the USAF Air Education and Training Command. “Funding is the issue, with timing, given all of the other recapitalisation needs of the air force at this point.”
US Air Force
While industry sources at several of the companies hoping to secure the T-X tender are hopeful that money will be allocated to the programme in the fiscal year 2015 budget, not even Rice is sure what kind of resources the service will have at its disposal, given the arbitrary cuts mandated by the Congressional sequestration law.
“There are some options, and we certainly haven’t given up on it,” Rice says. “I think we’ll have to wait to see when we start major procurement of the system.”
Rice says he cannot discuss what options the USAF is examining to fund the T-X programme. One step that must be completed before the discussion can proceed is the revalidation of the T-X analysis of alternatives. This will not start until there is money allocated in the budget to pay for it, Rice says.
While the T-38 is safe to operate into the foreseeable future, the problem is that the 50-year-old machine is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. “I’m not concerned about the safety of the T-38,” Rice says. “The real issue with the T-38 is the increasing cost to sustain it over time.”
Ultimately what will force the USAF to buy a new training aircraft is when the sustainment cost of the T-38 exceeds the cost of buying and operating a new fleet of jets.
Another concern is that the T-38 is inadequate to train pilots for operating fifth-generation stealth fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor or F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Rice says. The T-38 was originally developed to train pilots to fly the “Century series” fighters of the 1960s, and in some ways has shortcomings for training even pilots of fourth-generation fighters.
But while the T-38 is not the optimum training platform for the F-35, Rice says he is optimistic that even new student pilots flying the JSF right out of flight school will not need to fly a two-seat version of the Lockheed F-16 before transitioning to the new jet.
“It’s my hope we won’t need a bridge course,” Rice says. “I think we’ll always be open to it when you have pilots who have much less experience. I haven’t reached that conclusion in my own mind yet.”
The strain that such a requirement would have imposed on the remaining F-16 training fleet had been a huge concern previously, Rice says. For aviators transitioning to the F-22 right out of initial pilot training, students have to undergo eight sorties in the F-16 before flying the Raptor.
Another issue that must be examined is whether the USAF will stick to its current specialised pilot training pipeline or move back to a general course. The air force will be shrinking in the future, and it might make sense to move to such a training scheme, Rice says.
Moreover, the USAF’s Beechcraft T-1 Jayhawk trainers will age out shortly after the T-X, which means that the opportunity to move to a redesigned training pipeline exists. “On the heels of the T-X, we’re going to start to age out the T-1s as well,” Rice says. “So this decision is very important for us to get right as an air force.”
If the USAF chooses to switch to a more general pilot training programme, that could add between 200 and 300 more aircraft to the current requirement of about 350 T-X aircraft.
Contractors are eager to fill the T-X requirement. Lockheed Martin is offering a derivative of the Korea Aerospace Industries T-50, which is heavily based on the F-16. BAE Systems is offering its Hawk T2, while General Dynamics and Alenia Aermacchi have teamed up to pitch the T-100 derivative of the latter’s M-346.
Rumours abound that Boeing has teamed up with Saab to offer a variant of the Gripen fighter for the T-X programme, but Boeing would not comment on the matter directly.