The US Air Force may be within months of launching a contest to replace the Northrop T-38 Talon trainer that was introduced in 1962.

At least five companies are plotting potential bids to win the contract to replace 450 T-38s and become the go-to trainer option worldwide for Lockheed Martin's fifth-generation fighters - the F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

With fewer new contract opportunities available over the next decade, the T-X programme is shaping up as a must-win battle. In terms of quantity, the deal represents the single largest new contract opportunity for manned aircraft in the US defence market for several years.

By 2012, the USAF may select a contractor to build at least 350 aircraft to replace the T-38 alone. But follow-on opportunities, including naval and light attack versions, could push sales to nearly 1,000 aircraft for the Department of Defense.

 T-38 - PalmsRick Gallery
© PalmsRick Gallery on

It is an opportunity that the worldwide advanced jet trainer industry has been anticipating for decades. Replacing the T-38 (above) has enticed industry for so long that two of the first companies that became involved were named Samsung and General Dynamics. Neither remains in the aircraft business, but the result of their collaboration in the early 1990s produced the T-50 Golden Eagle (below), which is now offered by Korea Aerospace Industries and Lockheed.

"We designed the T-50 as a T-38 replacement for the US Air Force," says Douglas Miller, Lockheed director for T-50 business development. "We were focused on that opportunity a long time ago."

© Lockheed Martin

The South Korean-built T-50 is not alone. Both the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master and BAE Systems Hawk 128 have attracted other buyers, but replacing the USAF's T-38 fleet remains the prime goal for both companies.

With KAI tightly aligned with Lockheed, Alenia Aermacchi and BAE may need to find US partners.

Starting in June 2009, Alenia executives spoke openly of plans to offer the M-346 to the USAF as a prime contractor, perhaps using newly acquired DRS Technologies to install sensitive equipment. But the company has changed course since April, when Finmecannica chief executive Pier Francesco Guarguaglini told market analysts that it would seek a US partner.

Meanwhile, BAE's plan is still to offer the Hawk for the T-X contract through its US-based subsidiary BAE Systems Inc.

Ian Reason, BAE's business development director for military air sector training, says the company's starting point is to "deliver this as a prime in our own right, but with a very strong US industrial team around us". However, he adds: "We are not ruling out teaming with a major air sector prime."

For Alenia and BAE, the most obvious partners are Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Not only is Boeing already partnered with BAE as the US Navy's prime contractor for the T-45 Goshawk (below), it also has an agreement with Alenia to market the M-346 internationally.

 T-45 - US Navy
© Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Hall/US Navy

In addition, Northrop may offer advantages to a potential partner as the USAF's incumbent supplier of advanced jet trainers, although the T-38 production line closed in 1972.

However, both manufacturers appear to have different ideas than participating in the T-X contest as a partner to a foreign company.

Boeing, in particular, wants the USAF to factor industrial base issues into the T-X competition. Moreover, industry sources last year confirmed to Flight International that Boeing may offer a "purpose-built" aircraft. With each off-the-shelf option relying heavily on foreign aircraft designers, Boeing may hope to sway the requirements to drive a clean-sheet design launched by a US manufacturer.

So far, Boeing is keeping its strategy for T-X mostly secret. "We have various options on the table," says Dave Schweppe, a business development director for Boeing. "In December-or-so of this year, we can probably be a lot more forthcoming about our offering."

For its part, Northrop also prefers to keep its strategy closely held at this stage.

"Northrop Grumman is interested in the future of this programme, and will look at all options to respond to the needs of the air force," says Scott Collins, director of future tactical systems for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

As the legacy T-38 supplier, Northrop's preferred route may be offering a service life extension programme for the Talon fleet.

Dave McDonald, a plans, programmes and requirements manager for the Air Education and Training Command (AETC), confirms "extending the life of the baseline system" remains one of the options on the USAF's list.

Northrop also has the ability to surprise the competition by producing an all-new, clean-sheet design. In addition to its long heritage in the trainer market, the company owns a major stake in Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites.

Among several ambitious design projects over the years, Scaled designed and built a jet-powered replacement for the Fairchild A-10 ground-attack aircraft in the early 1990s called the agile response effective support aircraft.

The scale of the programme could also spark other surprise offerings from industry.

Dan Korte, president of Rolls-Royce Defence Aerospace, says his company has been in discussions with T-X bidders about offering the Eurojet consortium's EJ200 turbofan as a re-engining option. Even in a single-engined configuration, the prospect of introducing the powerplant of the Eurofighter Typhoon into a T-X offering shows how far vendors are willing to compete for this contract.

Korte declines to name any companies involved in the EJ200 discussions. BAE's Reason has heard about the possible offering, however. "I believe [Rolls-Royce has] been approached by one of the competitors," Reason says. "Everybody's talking to everybody. Until the acquisition strategy settles down, I think there's going to be a lot of discussion."

Meanwhile, USAF officials are working to define what they want to replace the Talon.

The AETC, perhaps mindful of preventing delays as a result of flaws in the acquisition process, has been working on finalising requirements for the T-X since 2003. At that time, a T-38 replacement was not planned until after 2020, as the oldest Talons approached entering a seventh decade of service.

But the USAF seemed to accelerate the T-X acquisition process last year as new concerns arose about the T-38 fleet's viability. A T-38C crash in April 2008 was blamed on an aileron that failed in the full-down position on take off, killing the two-man crew.

 T-38 Edwards - USAF
© Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes/US Air Force

USAF officials launched a comprehensive structural assessment in the wake of the accident, and believe the fleet remains viable beyond 2020.

Nonetheless, the service launched the T-X acquisition process less than a year after the T-38C accident, issuing a request for information for an "advanced pilot training family of systems" in March 2009.

For the first time, the initial operational capability date was set for fiscal year 2017 for a family of systems that includes an aircraft, simulator and classroom instruction.

The RFI identified five training tasks for the F-22 and F-35 that "lend themselves" to being performed by a two-seat fighter. The five are "sustained high-g operations, air-refuelling, night vision imaging systems operations, air-to-air intercepts, and datalink operations".

Five months later, the USAF issued a follow-up that clarified the air refuelling task could be performed in a simulator.

McDonald says the next step is to perform an analysis of alternatives. A draft copy in January should identify the feasibility, cost and effectiveness of a wide range of options.

At the same time, the Pentagon must commit funding in the FY2012 budget request, which will be revealed in February 2011. So far, the T-X programme's budget has been limited to assessing options and launching a competition.

If the programme receives budget support, a request for proposals could be issued in February or March in 2011, with contract award possible by the end of the calendar year.

With the introduction of the F-22 and the conventional take-off and landing F-35A, flying the aircraft is supposed to become easier, with more responsive and sophisticated flight controls compared to earlier generations. The next trainer aircraft, however, will have to teach pilots how to manage a cockpit that fuses data coming from several advanced sensors simultaneously.

"You have more things to manage, more things to look at," McDonald says. "Prioritisation of tasks is still an issue."

Although the RFI documents ask vendors whether there is a fighter or attack version of their trainer aircraft, the USAF is not likely to factor combat performance when it comes to evaluating bids.

"I'm looking strictly at the trainer," McDonald says. "What do we need to fill the capability gaps that we have now?"

The USAF has taken a similar approach with the USN's far-term requirement for a T-45 Goshawk replacement.

Navy officials are participating in the analysis of alternatives for the T-X, but carrier-landing capability will not be part of the USAF's evaluation.

It is also possible that the airframe for the USAF's T-X will be different than the USN aircraft, McDonald says. "The navy needs an advanced trainer that's stressed for carrier operations. That's a plain and simple fact." But separate airframes could share common engines and avionics, he says.

Alenia's M-346 is designed specifically to emulate fifth-generation fighter cockpits, but differs in one significant detail: its pilot uses a centre-stick to command a digital fly-by-wire control system. However, the cockpit can be redesigned to accommodate an F-35-style sidestick if a customer requests it, says Alenia North America chief executive John Young.

The M-346 also may be adapted with a universal aerial slipway installation, which would allow the aircraft to be refuelled in-flight by a boom-equipped tanker.

But those seem like minor changes compared with Alenia's surprise rebranding effort unveiled quietly in May. For the T-X competition, the M-346 is renamed the T-100 integrated training system (ITS).

 T-100, ©Alenia North America
© Alenia North America

The new designation, Young says, is intended to evoke the USAF's historical century-series fighters.

Establishing the T-100 ITS as an American brand is one of the keys to Alenia's strategy. In addition to finding a US-based partner, the company is making several concessions beyond the 50% threshold to meet "buy American" requirements.

Final assembly of the M-346 will transfer from Venegono, Italy, to a US location - perhaps Elizabeth City, North Carolina, or a site chosen by a US partner. Production of Honeywell F124 engines for the rebranded T-100 will shift from Taiwan to Arizona.

With the UK Royal Air Force's Hawk T2/128 set as the baseline for its offer, BAE is positioning itself as the least risky option among the field of competitors.

"Our understanding of this opportunity is that replacing the T-38 is a must-pay bill," says Reason. "Doing nothing is not a zero-cost option. A new acquisition is required. The USAF has significant budget and fiscal constraints at the moment. We can offer a low-risk, low-cost option."

Hawk T2 - BAE Systems 
© BAE Systems

Indeed, BAE's strategy is to offer the Hawk T2 version (above), with as few modifications as possible. So far, for example, the company plans to retain the jet's centre-stick configuration, rather than offer a sidestick option.

Some flexibility is possible with the choice of engine, but BAE prefers to retain the Hawk 128's Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour 951 turbofan. In a concession to "buy American" requirements, Adour production for the T-X could be moved to the USA, where Rolls-Royce operates a major hub in Indianapolis.

"The Adour is a very capable product," Reason says. "We don't need to change the engine."

As the manufacturer of the F-22 and F-35, Lockheed owns a unique perspective on the lead-in trainer requirement.

"I suspect there's an awful lot of people scratching their head [at other companies] trying to think how [they're] going to approach this opportunity," says Miller. "We're not one of them."

Indeed, Lockheed believes the baseline T-50 design will satisfy the USAF's T-X requirements.

"I think that from a performance perspective there's no change necessary," Miller says. "The T-50 is a remarkably strong performing aircraft. There will be some changes that we incorporate in the avionics and the capabilities that we're able to train to in the aircraft to accommodate the multi-role aspects of the fifth-generation fighters."

Lockheed is also considering transferring T-50 final assembly for the T-X contract to the USA, but leaves the option on the table to continue building the aircraft in South Korea. KAI has already delivered 50 T-50s to the nation's air force, which has ordered a total of 142 as trainers and light attack aircraft.

As big as the T-X contract is to aircraft manufacturers, the competition is also important for companies that provide full-flight simulators, with between 35 and 50 systems likely to be purchased.

McDonald, however, does not expect to see dramatic improvements in simulator technology as T-X proposals are submitted.

"I have not seen any transformational approach to simulation from the vendors," he says. "The fact that the vendors have not come forward with that type of approach indicates to me that it's not out there."

Radical improvements, including holographic-based visuals and centrifuge-based simulators for motion realism, will probably remain on the drawing board.

But simulator vendors are preparing several new technologies, such as improving visual acuity to near-20/20 quality, says Ray Duquette, vice-president of marketing and business development for CAE.

"I don't think we're there yet for the 20/20 requirement," says Duquette. "That will be ready three to five years from now, and that's what industry will strive for."

Source: Flight International