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Leonardo returns to T-X competition alone

Leonardo has decided to compete for the US Air Force’s $16 billion T-X trainer contract despite the withdrawal last month of Raytheon as the company’s US partner and prime contractor.

The decision by the Italian manufacturer creates and at least three-way competition for the contract to replace the Northrop T-38C with 350 new aircraft and training systems, with Boeing/Saab offering a clean-sheet design and Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries proposing a slightly modified T-50A.

Leonardo’s US-based subsidiary, Leonardo DRS, will serve as prime contractor for a bid based on the T-100, a slightly modified variant of the M-346 trainer in service with Italy and Israel.

The T-100 offers a “mature, readily available and technologically advanced solution that will also have a significant economic impact in the US”, says Bill Lynn, chief executive of Leonardo DRS.

For several years, Leonardo has targeted the T-X contract as a prime opportunity for the M-346 programme, but its bid seemed in jeopardy a few weeks. After a one-year-old partnership, Raytheon withdrew as Leonardo’s US-based prime contractor, saying it was unable to reach a business deal that “was in the best interests of the US Air Force”.

A week later, Northrop Grumman also withdrew its competed, clean-sheet design from consideration for the T-X contract, narrowing the USAF’s field of bidders among established aircraft manufacturers with flying prototype aircraft only Boeing/Saab and Lockheed/KAI.

Leonardo’s announcement still leaves several questions. In December, former partner Raytheon announced the T-100 would be assembled in Meridian, Mississippi, but the Leonardo news release was silent on the final assembly location. The M-346 is assembled for the Italian and Israeli air forces in Venegono, Italy.

The US Air Force has designed the competition with an emphasis on selecting an affordable and low-risk training system, including simulators and ground-based training aides. It would replace a T-38C fleet that entered service in the early 1960s with a new training aircraft optimised to prepare a new generation of fighter and bomber pilots entering cockpits of the Lockheed Martin F-35 and F-22 as well as the Northrop B-2 and B-21.

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