A new study for the US Air Force says the key to expanding its fleet of fighter aircraft could lay in developing the new Boeing/Saab T-X trainer as a low-cost, lightweight, fighter.
The study is one of two reports by the MITRE Corporation in answer to a Congress directive for an independent analysis of the USAF’s aim to increase in size in order to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy.
The corporation’s senior principal systems engineer David Gerber says that less-demanding missions such as homeland defense should not soak up precious hours for advanced fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, saying that this kind of role could easily be assumed by a developed variant of the T-X.
The ‘Air Force We Need’ initiative suggests increasing USAF fighter squadrons from 55 today to 62 by the mid-2020s. In budget-constrained times, the T-X could offer dramatically lower up-front acquisition and through life support costs.
Speaking at June’s Paris Air Show, Boeing’s Thom Breckenridge, vice president of international sales, told reporters that the company expects a global market for some 2,600 advanced jet trainers in the era of its T-X. It knows it’s tapping into huge potential, but it needs to be realized if the company is to make serious money with the T-X.
T-X was broadly aimed at 351 new aircraft and associated training systems under a planned budget that was as much as $19-billion. Boeing’s winning bid was worth $9.2 billion! The initial number of aircraft is purely for Undergraduate Pilot Training within Air Education and Training Command (AETC) but there are several avenues that could offer additional business from the USAF.
Boeing is already looking at light attack and aggressor training opportunities for the aircraft and it says it has already identified locations for hardpoints under the wings. Coupling low cost and high performance makes the Boeing aircraft an exciting overall prospect for the USAF.
Maintaining a fleet of all fifth-generation fighters is going to impact overall mass due to the high cost of operating these advanced fighters. While multi-role capability ensures that high-end fighter aircraft are ubiquitous and versatile, clearly some more niche roles can be justified for other platforms, especially if it helps preserve fifth-generation fighter fleets through a clever low/high force mix by removing the need to fly more benign missions in permissive environments.
This is something a T-X aircraft modified with a small active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and short-range air-to-air missile could theoretically prove extremely effective at.