The U.S. Air Force’s T-X advanced trainer program is one of the biggest prizes in the military aircraft market in the near future. This is due to the scale of the program itself: under the program, the Air Force intends to buy 350 advanced jet trainers to replace its fleet of Northrop T-38Cs. In addition, the winning T-X aircraft will be in a position to become perhaps the leading competitor in the future global market for advanced jet trainers.
While the T-X program has drawn considerable interest from aircraft manufacturers, the line-up of contenders has changed in recent weeks. Leonardo had been teamed with Raytheon to bid the T-100, a version of the former’s M-346 advanced trainer, but the U.S. company withdrew from the competition in January 2017.
In the wake of the departure, Leonardo is evaluating its options, including whether to proceed with the bid on its own or perhaps find another U.S. partner. The twin-engine T-100 is powered by Honeywell F124 turbofan engines.
Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems had teamed to jointly propose a clean-sheet design known as the Model 400. However, the two companies have now opted not to pursue the T-X contract.
Meanwhile, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is partnered with Lockheed Martin to propose the T-50A, a variant of KAI’s T-50 trainer. Lockheed Martin assisted in development of the original T-50. Two T-50A development aircraft are currently in flight testing; the first took to the air in June 2016 and the second joined the flight test effort the following month. These two aircraft were produced by KAI in South Korea.
However, if the T-50A is chosen for the T-X contract, final assembly of aircraft for the program would occur at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Greenville, South Carolina. Major components, such as the wings and fuselage, would continue to be produced in South Korea. General Electric supplies its F404-GE-102 turbofan engine for the single-engine T-50A.
Boeing and Saab are jointly proposing an all-new, clean-sheet design for the T-X program. The two companies have already built two examples of the new aircraft, unveiling them in September 2016. The first of these aircraft made its initial flight in December 2016. Designed expressly for the USAF program, the Boeing/Saab aircraft features twin tails, a shoulder-mounted wing, and a single F404-GE-102 engine. Boeing is building development aircraft in St. Louis; the company intends to build production aircraft at a yet-to-be-determined location in the U.S. Some portions of the aircraft are manufactured in Sweden by Saab.
A clean-sheet design is also being proposed by Colorado-based Freedom Aircraft Ventures LLC, a joint venture of Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). Dubbed the Freedom Trainer, the twin-tail, swept-wing aircraft is powered by a pair of Williams FJ44-4M turbofan engines.
Contract award for the T-X program may occur in the second half of 2017 or early 2018. Initial Operational Capability is slated for FY24, with Full Operational Capability in FY34. These plans are heavily dependent on funding availability and prioritization, and delays are certainly possible.
The market potential of the selected T-X aircraft extends beyond the Air Force’s 350-unit advanced trainer buy. The USAF imprimatur will make the T-X winner a very strong contender for sales on the worldwide advanced jet trainer market.
In addition, the T-X design could be adapted for use as a light attack aircraft, thus opening up that market to the winning aircraft as well. Indeed, a light attack version of the aircraft could be a contender for a possible USAF acquisition to partially replace the A-10 in the close air support role.