One major development in the US Defense Department’s aviation training enterprise remains the continued delay of Boeing T-7A Red Hawks entering the US Air Force’s aging training force. Group Editor Marty Kauchak updates the impact of this program’s missed acquisition milestones and the Air Force’s challenge to meet its pilot readiness goals – without a purpose-built fifth-generation jet trainer. 

The US Air Force plans to buy 351 Boeing T-7A Red Hawks. The Red Hawks will replace the 60-plus-year-old, increasingly obsolete fleet of 422 T-38 Talon advanced jet trainers that continues to receive structural modifications and cockpit upgrades to keep them in some modicum of concurrency with the USAF’s expanding fifth-generation F-35A fleet and its legacy F-22 force. 

The T-7A has been beset by acquisition woes throughout its early years, which should provide lessons learned for other OEMs in the military fast-jet trainer market. Indeed, the US Government Accountability Office’s June 2022 Weapon Systems Annual Assessment: Challenges to Fielding Capabilities Faster Persist report identified the emergency escape system as a top risk to the program’s schedule in its annual weapon systems assessment, and asserted that previous milestone delays were “primarily due to Boeing’s continued underestimation of the scope of the work and resources needed to accomplish it.”

One major program impact from the T-7A delivery delay has been the slippage of program initial operational capability (IOC) until early 2027, from its original goal of 2024, and a more recent timeline of early 2026, plus a postponement of Milestone C low-rate production. 

This is a recent, major development. Indeed, this April 26, a written statement on Air Force Structure and Modernization Programs presented at a Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Airland hearing by senior service leaders, including Andrew P. Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition, Technology & Logistics), said: “The Air Force is working with Boeing to enable the T-7A program to achieve Milestone C in 2QFY25 [early 2026].”

A second programmatic challenge is the Air Force’s removal of all T-7 production funds from its fiscal year 2024 budget request delivered to Congress this March, with the service saying the slip in the low-rate initial production meant production funds are not needed in the coming fiscal year https://www. 20913-mst-s-and-t-investments-competing-with-big-ticket-programs-in-fy24-dod-budget. 

Another huge impact on the Air Force aviation enterprise due to the T-7A’s delay in entering service is the cascading effect of increasing investments in the legacy, 60-plus-year-old T-38 Talon advanced jet trainers, which continue to receive structural modifications and cockpit improvements to keep them as mission relevant as feasible. It’s important to note that in one case, Israel Aerospace Industries is completing a $240 million contract award to build wings for the T-38C Talons. Additionally, the Air Force is also behind in enhancing the General Electric J85 after burning turbojets that power the AETC’s trainers, keeping many Talons grounded. And that’s for starters.

The 60-plus-year-old T-38 Talon advanced jet trainers will need to remain in service a few years longer.

Source/credit: US Air Force/Steve White

In May, Capt. Lauren Woods, Public Affairs Operations Division, Air Education and Training Command, provided MS&T with a command statement on the implications of the T-7A program delays throughout the command training enterprise. 

In the case of the T-38C, the command acknowledged that maintaining the T-38C, which first entered service in 1961 and has been a workhorse to train more than 83,000 U.S. and allied pilots, is increasingly expensive as the T-38s age. “Replacing the T-38C with the T-7A Redhawk will modernize our pilot training enterprise and bring additional capabilities to prepare pilots for fifth-generation fighters. As with all aging fleets, sustainment requirements increase and latency issues also need to be addressed. Our team works extremely hard to ensure the resources available are maximized to get the most out of the production pipeline.” 

Of significance, the AETC statement also noted “T-7A delivery delays will not slow the production of AETC pilot graduates. However, it will force the use of the T-38C longer than planned. Any future T-7A delays will be buffered with the T-38C.” This read-out on T-7A delays on USAF pilot community readiness appears to be at odds with the written statement of General David W. Allvin, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, submitted ahead of this April 13’s House Armed Service’s Readiness Subcommittee hearing. The service four-star officer said in part, “Along with aircrew retention, we are continuing pilot production investments. In FY22, 

Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) programs produced 1,276 pilots—105 less than the previous year and 224 pilots short of the 1,500 total goal. Maintenance and supply challenges for aging training aircraft compound the throughput timelines.”

The May 10 AETC statement continued, “Naturally, further delay of the T-7A requires a greater percentage of the T-38C fleet to undergo an increased intensive repair and inspection cycle as well as component replacements to support AETC pilot training until T-7A procurement.”

No updated T-38C program sunset, or phase-out, clause was provided in the AETC statement, or was available on the Air Force website when this article was written.   


Boeing Perspectives

This May 11, a Boeing Defense, Space & Security spokesperson provided the OEM’s perspectives on its T-7A program, initially confirming the company is on contract for 351 aircraft and, as significant, 46 ground-based training system devices. “We have built a total of seven EMD jets. Two static and fatigue test articles and five EMD [engineering and manufacturing development] jets,” the spokesperson added, and continued, “We expect to deliver all five EMD jets this year.” This June 28, Boeing and the Air Force completed the inaugural flight of the service’s first T-7A Red Hawk, marking the start of the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the program.

Boeing is also in the hardware/software integration phase of development of the ground-based training system devices. “Following integration, we will begin our testing phase prior to sending the devices to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph [Texas],” the corporate spokesperson explained. For the T-7A Red Hawk ground-based training system, Boeing said it “partners with industry-leading technology companies to provide world-class training solutions to the warfighter.” 

The AETC statement noted of further interest, that in addition to the T-7A, “the introduction of low-cost, virtual reality-based immersive training devices will further enable flexibility in the pilot training enterprise. Over 200 Immersive Training Devices have been delivered across the Air Force’s pilot training enterprise and incorporated into our new syllabi.”

The command-furnished statement concluded, “Overall, AETC is re-envisioning pilot training for the 21st century, combining student-centered learning with integrated immersive technology, seamless access to content and quality instruction to produce pilots able to fight future threats for the next several decades.”

Monitoring Pilot Program Turbulence

MS&T will continue to monitor and report on a number of converging dynamics in the US Air Force’s aviation enterprise impacting the service pilot community’s training and overall readiness. Attention-getting learning technologies continue to be introduced into undergraduate and other pilot programs. Yet, the Air Force continues to grapple with providing training aircraft to meet the surging demands of pilots for its expanding F-35A force, and beyond that, simply recruiting and retaining pilots to support other parts of its dynamic air order of battle.