Lockheed Martin, in partnership with Korea Aerospace Industries, is offering the T-50A for the T-X competition.
T-50 program history
According to its website, Lockheed Martin says: ‘the T-50A delivers the fighter-like performance and capabilities needed to eliminate 5th generation training gaps and inefficiencies. The T-50A builds on the proven heritage of the T-50. There are more than 100 T-50s flying today—100,000 flight hours and counting—and the airframe has already trained more than 1,000 pilots.’
The T-50A certainly presents a proven solution for the USAF as opposed to the ‘clean sheet’ designs. Based on the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle it represents what is arguably the most mature solution for T-X. The Korea Fighter Program (KFP), which saw Korea purchasing, assembling and then building the F-16 under license, provided the springboard to launch an indigenous advanced trainer program, and the KTX-2 (now the T-50), began as a KFP offset project.
Lockheed Martin perceived a need for an advanced jet trainer that would complement the F-16, providing the performance, modern ‘glass’ cockpit, digital flight controls, state-of-the-art avionics and training-sortie duration lacking in other trainers then on the market. This meant that Lockheed’s investment in the KTX-2 was based upon a sound business case, rather than an offset obligation.
The KTX-2 program began in 1992. A Korean government go-ahead for full-scale development (FSD) was given on July 3, 1997. The FSD contract was signed October 24, 1997, requiring the construction of four flying prototypes and two static/fatigue test airframes. KAI was the prime contractor, undertaking aircraft design and integration, major component fabrication, assembly and delivery. Lockheed Martin was the principle subcontractor, responsible for technical assistance and for flight control, avionics and wing development.
Final assembly of the first T-50 took place between January 15 and September 14, 2001, and the aircraft was formally rolled out on October 31, 2001. The first flight of the first T-50 prototype took place on August 20, 2002, and the second aircraft followed on November 8, 2002.
The RoKAF placed a production contract for 25 T-50s on December 19, 2003, with aircraft scheduled to be delivered between 2005 and 2009. These were advanced flying training aircraft, with no internal gun, no weapons carriage capabilities and no radar. The first of these entered final assembly on December 17, 2004, and was rolled out on August 30, 2005. Deliveries to the RoKAF began on December 29, 2005, with the handover of the first two production aircraft to the RoKAF’s 281st Test and Evaluation Squadron, 52nd Test and Evaluation Group at Sacheon. The first 12 T-50s were delivered to No 203 Squadron at Gwangju, where the initial advanced training course began on March 1, 2007.
As well as 102 T-50s, the RoKAF has 22 TA-50s (deliveries commenced in March 2011) and approximately 60 FA-50s on order. The FA-50 is the current designation for what started as the A-50, and it was targeted at the domestic market initially to replace F-4s and F-5s.
The TA-50 LIFT variant was the result of a RoKAF need for dual roles and this is fitted with an with Elta EL/M-2032 fire-control radar and had weapon delivery software, external hardpoints for carrying a variety of weapons, wingtip missile rails and an internal cannon. The first production TA-50 was rolled out at Sacheon on January 24, 2011, and deliveries to the 115th Squadron of the 16th Fighter Wing at Yecheon took place between March 2011 and 2013.
Development of the FA-50 can be traced back to initial work by Samsung Aerospace in 1992 under the KTX-2 (Korean Trainer Experimental) initiative with assistance from Lockheed Martin. Three TA-50s were converted for the FA-50 programme, with first of these flying in June 2010. Like the TA-50, the FA-50 was also eventually equipped with the Elta EL/M-2032 fire-control radar, with the Selex Galileo Vixen and APG-67 options both having been vetoed.
The first export order for the type was from the Indonesian Air Force, which ordered the T-50I. These aircraft were actually TA-50s under a contract for 16 aircraft valued at approximately USD400 million. The Iraqi Air Force also ordered TA-50s in the shape of the T-50IQ and the Royal Thai Air Force the T-50TH. The Philippines Air Force has now ordered the FA-50PH. Iraq’s aircraft are reportedly built to FA-50 standard, despite their T-50IQ designation. Similarly the Philippine Air Force planned to purchase TA-50s, however these have since been described as FA-50s. Thailand has also now ordered four T-50THs.
On December 16, 2015, Lockheed Martin and KAI formally rolled out the first T-50A. In a new release it said the T-50A features several new features, including a large area display (LAD), embedded training systems, and an aerial refuelling capability.
In February 2016, Lockheed Martin formally announced that it was choosing the T-50A as its offering for T-X rather than a ‘clean sheet’ solution, which it had previously said it was looking at. ‘Our clean sheet team thought we had a great airplane but it doesn’t do much more than the T-50,’ says company executive Rob Weiss. ‘It doesn’t add capability beyond a modernised T-50.’
The company also revealed at its February 2016 press conference in Washington that it will build the aircraft in Greenville, South Carolina, and is standing up a final assembly and checkout (FACO) facility there that should be ready by year’s end (2016).
Lockheed Martin completed the initial flight of the first T-50A on June 2, 2016. Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries staged the first flight in Sacheon, South Korea.
The second T-50A, TX-2, completed its first flight on July 26, 2016. ‘We now have two aircraft in flight test proving our upgrade, and we’re nearing completion of our assembly and training operations center in Greenville, South Carolina,’ said Doug Batista, Lockheed Martin T-50A program manager. ‘We’re on track to provide the USAF with a production line and training capability on day one of contract award.’
There are differences between the first two aircraft. TX-1 features the dorsal Dorsal Air Refueling Tank (DART). According to Lockheed Martin: ‘There is only one version of the T-50A aircraft. [DART] is a piece of ‘alternate mission equipment’ like an external fuel tank. It can be installed or not depending on the mission need. For example, if a particular aircraft was being used during to train refueling then they would upload the DART. At any time they could remove the DART as training needs dictate.’ They added that DART is ‘wet’ and plumbed for aerial refuelling.
With Mach 1.2 performance demonstrated, the T-50 possesses handling characteristics that are representative of the F-16. But it is also relatively expensive, with an afterburning turbofan fuel consumption and maintenance requirements are thought to be relatively high. The T-50 is powered by a single General Electric F404 engine built under license by Samsung Techwin.
The T-50A is easy to fly – reportedly similar to the F-16, F-22 and F-35 – which LM says helps avoid negative training and unnecessary sorties.
The RoKAF’s T-50 training experience has proven that the aircraft yields better pilots in less time, with fewer sorties, says LM. The RoKAF uses the T-50 to reduce the number of required training flights in their KF-16s, which reduces operating costs and increases KF-16 fleet availability rates. According to official literature: ‘The T-50A Ground-Based Training System (GBTS) contains an array of innovative technologies to provide the USAF with options for ‘offloading’ aircraft training tasks into the simulation environment.’
The T-50A is clearly the option with greatest operational credibility. It is a type that is in service, and proven to be successful in training pilots from a LIFT perspective. But is it too high-end and too close to an F-16? Will unit and through life cost prove to be prohibitively high for the T-50A? It clearly offers high-end performance, which is important to the USAF, but does it offer sufficiently advanced synthetic training options?