In the 1st article he wrote for MS&T (nearly nine years ago), Dim Jones covered the developing competition for the T-X trainer. Dim Jones recounts the timeline leading to the Pentagon’s announcement of a winner.

The requirement is for an integrated package of ground, synthetic and live training, to be known as the Advanced Pilot Training Family of Systems (APT FoS). In the intervening years since the US Air Force documented its training shortfall in October 2009, the program shifted steadily to the right until finally, on 27 September 2018, the Pentagon announced Boeing Defense as the T-X winner.

The T-38 entered USAF service in 1961 and is now 57 years old. By the time the rolling replacement programme is complete, in 2034, if any T-38s remain, they will be 73 years old.

Back in 2010, there were three main contenders: the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer from BAE Systems, UK, teamed with Northrop-Grumman, Rolls Royce and L3; the M-346/T100 Master from Italy’s Alenia-Aermacchi, then partnered with General Dynamics, Honeywell and CAE; and the T-50 Golden Eagle from Korean Aircraft Industries and Lockheed Martin. All three were already in service with their respective air forces.

At that time, the notional T-X in-service date was 2017, but the programme then appeared to shift to the right faster than the calendar; the only development of note was that, in 2013, Boeing announced that they were teaming with Saab to produce a ‘clean-sheet design.’ By January 2014, the expected schedule was a Request For Information (RFI) in November 2014, a Request for Proposals (RFP) in mid-2015, Contract Award in 2017 and Interim Operational Capability (IOC) in 2023.

The USAF eventually announced its objectives in March 2015, and the 2015 budget included some funding for T-X.

As the detailed requirements were developed, it became apparent that the Hawk AJT was unlikely to meet some of the performance criteria, and the aircraft was withdrawn from the competition, although BAE continued to team with Northrop-Grumman to produce a new NG design. A mock-up was rolled out in December 2015 but, with the exception of fleeting glimpses of the aircraft at Mojave – looking remarkably like a T-38 – little more was heard, and the aircraft was later withdrawn.

Alenia-Aermacchi, now Leonardo, had severed their connection with GD and partnered with Raytheon. In January 2017, with an RFP expected later that year, Leonardo and Raytheon also parted company, and Leonardo declared their intent to go it alone. However, political realities evidently prevailed, and they joined forces (and subsequently merged) with DRS Technologies. The three main contenders – M-346/T100, Boeing/Saab T-X BTX, and LM/KAI T-50A – remained in the ring.

An early proposal from EADS with Mako/HEAT had never come to fruition, Textron AirLand with the Scorpion hovered on the outside of the fray but never really entered it, and a joint bid from the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Turkish Aircraft Industries (TAI) also failed to materialise.

The RFP was finally issued on 30 December 2016, with the consortia given 90 days to provide their initial responses. The criteria and processes by which the competitors would be judged were intricate but, according to everyone I spoke with, fair and transparent. The evaluation was clearly complex and the decision, initially expected at the end of 2017, was delayed in stages by nine months. On 27 September, just days before the end of the Pentagon’s fiscal year, HQ USAF announced that the contract, reportedly worth $9.2 billion and embracing 351 aircraft and 46 ground-based training systems (GBTS) had been awarded to Boeing/Saab.

Between 2014 and 2016, I covered in depth three of the then contenders – Hawk AJT (which I was fortunate enough to fly), M-346 and T-50A. It was clear that all of these were extremely sophisticated avionically, which would allow significant downloading of training elements from front-line aircraft, but also apparent that the Hawk would have difficulty satisfying the likely sustained turn/G requirements.

The M-346/T-100 is twin-engined which, in my experience, usually has cost-of-ownership implications. At the outset, affordability had been seen as of equal importance to capability, and it became clear as the process evolved that the winner would have to provide both.

Whereas the T100 offering was essentially an M-346, LM and KAI had sunk considerable funds into producing two T-50A prototypes, and Boeing and Saab considerably more in producing two T-X BTX from scratch. This possibly enabled them to utilize more of the lean manufacturing for which Saab have become known and Boeing’s Black Diamond advanced manufacturing techniques – making possible a bid price markedly lower than the assumed USAF ceiling and, I suspect, than most observers expected (roughly half the forecast cost) … they now have to deliver on that.

The projected aircraft service life of 22 years, in the context of the lifespan of current front-line programmes and the longevity of the T-38, is likely to be extremely conservative, which would tend to favour a new aircraft. Furthermore, with the slightly jaundiced eye of the foreign observer of recent US aircraft competitions, and with absolutely zero knowledge of any political bias or industrial lobbying, my money would always have been on a home-grown product. (Boeing claims that “more than 90%” of the T-X will be “made in America,” supporting in excess of 17,000 jobs in 34 states.)

The old adage goes ‘if it looks right, it flies right.’ T-X BTX certainly looks the part – twin-tail, stadium seating, LAD and all the attendant bells and whistles – and we must assume that its performance has been comprehensively demonstrated in defeating two very capable opponents. The challenge is now to ensure that it repays the outlay, by transforming the way in which future fast-jet pilots are trained. The 351 aircraft for the USAF is only the start. The Flygvapnet (Swedish Air Force) previously indicated it could replace its 1960s-era Saab 105 jet trainer with the Boeing-Saab T-X, but only if it won the American competition. The overall global market for advanced trainers has been estimated between 1,200 and 2,000 in the coming years.

"It was really the entire system." - Torgerson

Boeing won a US$9.2 billion contract from the US Air Force to provide 351 T-X jets and 46 ground-based training systems (GBTS) to replace the Air Education and Training Command's (AETC) 57-year-old fleet of T-38C Talons, and transition cadets to the new aircraft in the Air Force’s T-X pilot training program. The initial $813 million delivery order covers engineering and manufacturing development of the first five aircraft and seven simulators and supports initial operational capability by 2024.

Ted Torgerson, senior director of program integration, Advanced Pilot Training Program, Boeing, told MS&T: “Our supply chain and team are in place and we have been executing the contract since the award. There may be opportunities for other suppliers to join the team for components and sub-assemblies as we move through EMD and into production.” 

“We’ve talked a lot about how our aircraft performed remarkably well in flight test, but it was really the entire system,” he added. “Our test pilots trained using our ground-based training devices during that phase.”

The upcoming Maintenance Training System (MTS) contract is a separate acquisition. “For that effort, we continue to engage with the Air Force to help define the ‘art of the possible' in regards to introducing innovative mixed reality technologies that enable easy and effective maintenance training,” Torgerson said. 

Saab Receives T-X EMD Order from Boeing

Saab received an order from Boeing for the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase of the T-X Advanced Pilot Training Aircraft. The T-X program is divided into multiple phases; the order is for the first phase, valued at $117.6 million, and will run until 2022.

In this phase Saab and Boeing will “industrialize” the T-X aircraft with the US Air Force. The EMD stage includes testing, US military flight certification and the delivery of five jets, and will be followed by a serial production phase.

Published in MS&T 6/2018.