Despite a planned three-year slip in the initial operational capability goal for its T-X next-generation trainer, the US Air Force continues to view the Northrop T-38 Talon replacement deal as a major priority.
"The T-38 is a great airplane, but it can't train fifth-generation capability," says Brig Gen Mark Nowland, director plans, programmes and assessment for the USAF's Air Education and Training Command (AETC).
© US Air Force
The handling performance of the F-22 Raptor has exposed the T-38 Talon's shortcomings
To cover the training gap between its aged Talon and the Lockheed Martin F-22 air superiority fighter, the USAF runs a "bridge course" using two-seat Lockheed F-16Ds operated from Luke AFB, Arizona. New pilots are given seven flights in the type totalling 10h, with the work providing instruction in activities such as flying high-g manoeuvres and air-to-air refuelling by day and night.
AETC requirements division chief Gen Ken Griffin describes the current practice of using a 9g-capable aircraft as "overkill", and notes that it also places extra demand on the USAF's already under pressure F-16D fleet. "It's hurting our F-16 community whenever we do that," he says, noting that the annual number of students to use the type is about to rise from eight to 20.
The AETC's T-38s are an average of 44 years old, and under current plans the type is due to fly on until 2026. Previous studies, which looked at extending this as far as 2041, showed major cost increases and underlined the need for a new system, command officials say. However, as part of the US Department of Defense's budget request for fiscal year 2013, a target for initial operational capability was delayed from FY2017 to FY2020.
"Senior leaders realise the need for T-X exists now; budget constraints will dictate when," Col Dale VanDusen, T-X system programme manager, told IQPC's Military Flight Training conference in London on 15 March. Conceding that "industry is starved for information", he said the AETC is working to finalise its key performance parameters for a T-38 replacement.
Several contractors are already eyeing the T-X opportunity, which has previously been outlined as totalling about 350 new aircraft, plus associated training equipment. Alenia North America is promoting a T-100 version of its Aermacchi M-346; BAE Systems, L-3 Link Simulation & Training and Northrop Grumman a T129 version of the Hawk 128/T2; and Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries the T-50. Boeing is also believed to be quietly working on a new aircraft design intended to meet the USAF's pilot training needs.
"Affordability is going to be a huge measure if this [procurement] happens," Griffin told the conference. This could see the AETC consider innovative proposals, such as the use of contractor-owned aircraft.