Trainers and helicopters stuck in USAF budget limbo

Washington DC
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Three aviation programmes - the Boeing KC-46A tanker, Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter and a next-generation bomber - have received firm and explicit backing from US Air Force leaders against sweeping new budget cuts.

"There is no question we face difficult choices, but with these priorities firmly in mind, we can still advance air force capabilities," said Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley. He added military satellites to the list in a keynote speech at the Air Force Association's Air & Space conference in Washington, DC on 19 September.

But Donley's list of top priorities left at least four major programmes - involving new helicopters and trainers - in limbo, awaiting the USAF's next moves in either the acquisition or budget processes.

Neither Donley nor Gen Norton Schwartz, USAF chief of staff, rose to defend or even mention the service's commitment to these four programmes, for T-X advanced jet trainers, light attack trainers, utility helicopters under the common vertical lift support programme (CVLSP) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopters.

But if competitors for these programmes were discouraged by the lack of support from the USAF's top leaders, it was not obvious in the exhibit hall.

The T-X programme to replace about 450 Northrop T-38C Talons received the most attention. BAE Systems announced teaming up with Northrop Grumman Technical Services, which has agreed to manufacture the Hawk 128/T2. The agreement leaves Alenia Aeronautica still without a US-based manufacturing partner for the T-100, the USAF version of the M-346.

"We have a lot of options," said John Young, chief executive of Alenia North America.

Boeing, meanwhile, unveiled a concept image for a V-tailed, all-new trainer to replace the T-38 after around 2020. Lockheed displayed a model of the T-50 Golden Eagle, which is manufactured by Korea Aerospace Industries.

The exhibition saw rotorcraft offerings from AgustaWestland, Bell Boeing, Bell Helicopter, Boeing, EADS North America and Sikorsky. But the status of the CVLSP draft request for proposals remains overdue, and the budget to launch the CSAR programme next year has yet to be clarified.

The contract award for the light air support contract, meanwhile, has been delayed again from September until November, having originally been scheduled in June.

The air force has received bids from the Embraer/Sierra Nevada A-29 Super Tucano and the Hawker Beechcraft/Lockheed AT-6. But a planned follow-on contract to buy light attack and armed reconnaissance trainers for the USAF is now in jeopardy. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are considering proposals to eliminate funding for the programme.