Back in October 1986, the US Air Force was faced with a difficult decision. It had received seven responses to a request for proposals to build two prototypes for the advanced tactical fighter competition that ultimately yielded the Lockheed Martin F-22. In the wake of later industry consolidation, the USAF, it seemed, would never again enjoy such a wealth of bids.

Supposedly, the competition for the $16 billion T-X advanced pilot training system would be different. Lucrative enough to catch any defence contractor’s eye, yet basic enough to attract a diverse field of off-the-shelf and clean-sheet proposals, this seemed destined for a rare, multi-bid showdown. That is what happened from programme launch in 2012 until the last week of January, when the field suddenly dwindled to two.

Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries still intend to offer a slightly modified T-50A. Boeing and Saab will bid their clean-sheet T-X design. But gone suddenly is a Northrop Grumman/BAE Systems team with the clean-sheet Model 400 and Raytheon and Leonardo with the T-100 – a modified Aermacchi M-346. Other potential players, including a suggested Sierra Nevada team with Turkish Aerospace Industries and Textron AirLand’s Scorpion, remain publicly mute with the bidding deadline only weeks away.

It is clear that the USAF drove a hard bargain with contractors on this deal: enough to provoke half of the expected field to walk away from the biggest military trainer contract in more than 50 years. Indeed, the T-50 and M-346 were designed 20 years ago with an eye on replacing the USAF’s vast fleet of Northrop T-38 jets to train fighter and bomber pilots.

When the USAF launched the bidding phase of the T-X competition in March 2015, service officials tied the contract to the “Bending the Cost Curve” initiative. The goal was to craft a set of requirements that met its performance needs, while accepting as little risk as possible for the taxpayer. A similar strategy played out in the KC-X tanker competition, and has cost Boeing’s winning bid more than $2.1 billion in pre-tax charges since contract award.

That strategy only works if industry plays along. Despite investing millions in prototypes and industrial preparation, Northrop and Raytheon determined T-X was not worth the effort. It is now up to Boeing and Lockheed to answer the USAF’s call. In a fight between an off-the-shelf T-50A and a clean-sheet alternative, the former should have the advantage on risk and cost.

Source: Flight International