USAF T-X trainer competition – the winning factors

Photo: Boeing


This July the USAF will reveal the result of one of its most hotly-contested procurement competitions in years — the T-X trainer. Initially, this will call for 350 new jets to replace the T-38C Talon in the Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) phases.

The USAF launched T-X on December 30, 2016, when it released its formal request for proposals (RFP) for the Advanced Pilot Training (APT) requirement.

  • Planned procurement includes as many as 350 new trainers and could be worth as much as $16.3 billion to the winning team.
  • The USAF expected to select a winner of the T-X competition in 2017 (now slipped to July 2018).
  • The aircraft is expected to enter service no later than Fiscal Year 2024.
  • According to AETC, the period of operation for the T-X is 2026 to 2045, and the aircraft is set to fly 360 hours a year, at a mission readiness rate of at least 80 per cent.
  • The total value of the program could reach $16 billion.

Three significant performance characteristics stood out among over 100 points in the initial March 2015 requirements list: a sustained turn rate of a minimum of 6.5g, simulator visual acuity and performance, plus aircraft sustainment. That minimum sustained G requirement was set at 6.5g but with an aspiration to hit 7.5g — this is considered sufficient to ensure students can operate at 9g in a front-line fighter.

The future was also very much in mind as the requirement called for embedded training with synthetic sensors and a datalink. Other capabilities include the need for in-flight refueling (the aircraft must be at least adaptable to being fitted with an aerial refueling kit but built-in capability is preferred), a 10 per cent reduction in fuel usage over the T-38, and a minimum of being able to take off using 8,000ft of runway, plus a dry crosswind performance of 25kt and wet runway performance of 20kt.

Both cockpits are to have identical displays and controls, and the aircraft is to feature terrain and collision avoidance equipment. The T-X winner will also feature the ‘switchology’ for simulated release of both air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, and be able to carry a weapon systems support pod and a travel pod. The cockpits will also feature wide-area displays, as per the F-35, and be compatible with NVGs.

The initial engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase will include five test aircraft and optional production lots provide for the procurement of 350 trainers in 11 annual batches. Two low-rate initial lots will be followed by nine full-rate lots and production could reach 37 aircraft annually.

The contenders
This is the first major acquisition program to come under the USAF’s so-called ‘Bending the Cost Curve’ initiative and the USAF has made no secret of the need to build affordability into acquisition processes. When the T-X acquisition process started in 2010, it seemed that the USAF would favor a fair price over performance, however, as the stringent requirements were set out it was clear that the winner would need to offer both. The competitors rushed to offer off-the-shelf designs, and at that stage only Boeing was saying it was going to pitch a new, ‘clean-sheet’ design, which it believed from the outset would be the only way to meet the exacting requirements set out by the Air Force.

Contractor teams led by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon were expected to respond to the RFP.

Raytheon dramatically exited the competition in January 2017 and it was unclear if former-partner Leonardo would continue to offer its T-100 aircraft, based on the M-346 Master. In the event, it joined forces with DRS Technologies and pressed on.

Leonardo DRS

Boeing entered its brand new T-X BTX aircraft, of which two prototypes were built, and Lockheed Martin entered its T-50A, based on the joint-Korean T-50 Golden Eagle. Sierra Nevada and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) were also potential bidders, but neither followed that through.

TX-1 in action at Greenville. Lockheed Martin

Northrop Grumman exited the contest without responding to the RFP despite having built and flown a new ‘clean-sheet’ aircraft. Having remained totally silent on its T-X design despite flight test activity at Mojave, California, Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush told reporters the company chose not to bid on T-X. The news came as a huge surprise given the investment in a new Scaled Composites-designed aircraft after it had already walked away from the BAE Systems Hawk.

Scaled Composites

The news sparked suggestions that both Raytheon and Northrop Grumman were running away from T-X over cost concerns. Profit margins for aerospace companies have come under increasing scrutiny under the President Trump administration, and T-X has become focused both on exacting performance and stringent cost control.

Potential outcome
Raytheon’s inability to agree terms with Leonardo on the T-100 offering reportedly led to the partnership being dissolved. General Dynamics had also walked away from the T-100. The fact that two prime contractors broke away from the T-100 led to speculation that pricing was a sticking point. Many saw the T-100 as a leading contender for T-X. It has secured a number of customers and has demonstrated excellent live-virtual embedded training qualities.

However, the USAF is not simply evaluating cost and performance, risk is also a major factor and the USAF says it will offer monetary credits for proposals that offer performance over and above the basic parameters. Some have criticised the fact that the rewards for performance have been skewed to flying qualities rather than synthetic training solutions — the lowest risk here would appear to favor the T-100.

Ultimately, the USAF’s acquisition approach was designed to allow fairness between the ‘clean-sheet’ and off-the-shelf solutions. Both Lockheed Martin and Boeing have built and flown a pair of T-X prototypes on company money. They have invested significant funds in T-X, which has ultimately delivered test aircraft that have flown in the US and proved themselves against the performance requirements. The T-100 capability has been tested at Leonardo’s Venegono facility in Italy.

Having demonstrated their flying qualities, which were submitted as part of the RFP, these figures will be factored into the performance element of the equation.

Risk can be measured in various ways, indeed, despite being a brand new aircraft, Boeing and partner Saab say their aircraft represents the lowest risk solution. That’s because they say that they have an aircraft that has been built to exactly meet the customer’s requirements. They also say that by leveraging Saab’s expertise in lean manufacturing techniques, they can deliver the new aircraft at a very competitive price.

For more on the T-X contenders, see our T-X microsite.

Posted in Features, T-X


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