USAF funding for T-38 replacement jumps tenfold in latest spending plan

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US Air Force funding for a new advanced jet training system has jumped tenfold in the latest five-year spending plan, but top officials remain non-committal about the schedule and strategy for fielding a new aircraft.

The five-year spending plan unveiled by the air force on 14 February includes $306 million for the T-X training system, which will replace the Northrop T-38C Talon and its simulators.

That represents a huge jump from about $30 million inserted in the service's five-year plan last year, and is perhaps enough to field an off-the-shelf aircraft on schedule in fiscal year 2017.

northrop grumman
 © Northrop Grumman
US Air Force funding for a new advanced jet training system to replace the T-38 Talon (above) has jumped tenfold in the latest five-year spending plan

Despite higher funding levels, top USAF officials do not seem confident about the T-X programme's future. Surprisingly, secretary of the air force Michael Donley has listed T-X among unfunded programmes, a list that also includes the Air Force One replacement.

Gen Edward Rice, commander of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC), also declines to reaffirm the air force's original plan to start replacing the T-X in 2017. "We have not set an [initial operational capability]," he says.

The service is in the final stages of completing an analysis of alternatives, allowing an air force requirements oversight council meeting in March to set an acquisition strategy.

Options for replacing the T-38 include several off-the-shelf designs, including the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 branded for T-X as the T-100, the BAE Systems Hawk 128 and the Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 Golden Eagle.

Northrop Grumman also can offer to extend the service life of the T-38 fleet, or propose a new aircraft. Meanwhile, Boeing has expressed interest in offering a purpose-built design for the T-X contract.

USAF officials are expected to brief the Defense Acquisition Board about the requirement in June.