Boeing’s Next Gen Trainer for USAF

The T-X jet trainers to be acquired in the near future, are meant to replace the fleet of Northrop T-38C Talons currently operated by the USAF and are nearly six decades old

Issue: 10 / 2018By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Boeing

On September 27 this year, the United States Air Force (USAF) made an announcement regarding the award of a defence contract valued at $9.2 billion, to a partnership company of Boeing Defence with Swedish aerospace and defence firm Saab. The contract is for the production and supply of 351 T-X jet trainers along with 46 flight simulators as also associated ground equipment. The T-X jet trainers to be acquired in the near future by the USAF, are meant to replace the fleet of Northrop T-38C Talons currently operated by the Air Education and Training Command of the USAF and are nearly six decades old. Their replacement has indeed been long overdue.

This is the third major contract to be bagged by Boeing Defence in the last one month or so during which, Boeing defence has been awarded a contract to build the first four MQ-25 unmanned aerial tankers for the US Navy. This contract is valued at $805 million. This was followed by another contract valued at $2.38 billion that was awarded by the USAF to Boeing Defence and Leonardo combine, to manufacture 84 MH-139 helicopters to replace the fleet of UH-1N Huey helicopters. This new fleet of helicopters will be employed to guard the nation’s land based nuclear missile silos, a responsibility that at present is shouldered by the fleet of UH-1N Huey helicopters.

THE NORTHROP T-38C TALON

The T-38C Talon built by Northrop Grumman, which is to be replaced by the T-X, is a twin-engine, two-seat, advanced jet trainer held on the inventory of the USAF and is reputed to be the world’s first supersonic jet trainer. Inducted into service with the USAF in 1961, amongst the jet trainers the world over, it is the highest in numbers produced in the history of jet trainers. Apart from the USAF, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the US and the US Naval Test Pilots’ School, the T-38C Talon is currently operated by the Air Forces of Germany, Portugal, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. Pilots of other NATO nations do get to fly the T-38C Talon while undergoing joint training programmes with USAF pilots.

The history of development of the T-38C can be traced back to the 1950s, to the days of the Eisenhower administration. This platform was being developed to replace the subsonic singleengine Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star trainers. The T-38 retained the same general airframe design as that of the Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter and the F-20 Tiger Shark line of aircraft. In all, around 1200 of the T-38 Talon aircraft have been built in the period 1961 to 1972 and this fleet has been the jet training platform for more than 72,000 pilots of the USAF. Currently, over 500 T-38C Talon aircraft continue to be in service with the USAF and NASA alone.

Boeing designed its clean-sheet T-X jet trainer in collaboration with Saab, though more than 90 per cent of the aircraft is planned to be manufactured in the US

One aspect in the programme for replacement of the T-38C Talon was that the US aerospace giant Northrop Grumman did not participate in the tendering process. This was somewhat surprising as well as intriguing as it was this US aerospace firm that had built the T-38C Talon. Northrop Grumman had initially announced that it would partner with BAE Systems of the United Kingdom to offer an updated version of BAE’s Hawk T2 in response to the tender for the next generation trainers for the USAF. The updated version of BAE’s Hawk T2 itself was an updated version of a 1970s-era trainer. However, that plan was jettisoned in favour of a “clean sheet” design specifically for the T-X contest.

THE T-X NEXT GENERATION JET TRAINERS

As a part of the successful contract for the next generation trainer platform, the USAF will have the option to purchase up to 475 T–X trainer aircraft as also 120 flight simulators. If the project moves forward in accordance with the plan, the first of the new two-seat jet trainers will join the USAF by late 2023, along with state-of-art, flight simulators. The contract also includes ground training systems, mission planning and processing systems, support equipment as well as spares. As per the USAF, the T-X project that was originally priced at around $19.7 billion, was reduced by Boeing Defence and Saab by as much as $10.5 billion to $9.2 billion. Competitive bidding was one of the factors that contributed to bringing the price down, making it much more affordable for the USAF.

Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for the T-X is scheduled to be achieved by the end of 2024 when the first squadron and its associated simulators are all available for training. Final Operational Capability (FOC) is projected to be achieved by 2034. There is also a strong possibility of demand of a respectable level in the international market for this next generation jet trainer especially from the Air Forces of those nations that plan on inducting the fifth generation F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter or other equivalent platforms as and when available in the market. This undoubtedly, will prove to be a bonanza for Boeing Defence-Saab combine. In addition, this project will prove to be an inspiration for Boeing to embark on the development and manufacture of combat platforms to replace the several fourth generation machines that are currently in service, but are fast approaching the end of the total technical life.

DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE T-X JET TRAINER

The design of the T-X jet trainer offered by Boeing Defence, was an original one and was not an upgraded version based on an existing aircraft. Offers by the other competing aerospace firms on the other hand, were essentially upgrades based on previously developed aircraft. Lockheed Martin Corporation had offered the T-50A which was based on the FA-50, a light attack and trainer aircraft developed with Korea Aerospace Industries and Leonardo’s T-100, which is based on the light attack and trainer aircraft which is a derivative of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master. Boeing’s original design thus emerged as the preferred platform over the other two competitors. Dr Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the USAF, also defended the selection by the service of Boeing’s offer of the trainer aircraft design, which was the only proposed aircraft that was not a modified version of an existing plane. “There are a lot of reasons why Boeing T-X is the best choice,” says Ted Torgerson, the company’s T-X Programme Manager. “We designed the entire system, the aircraft, ground-based training and support together from the ground up, which provides enhanced efficiencies.”

Boeing designed its clean-sheet T-X jet trainer in collaboration with Saab, though more than 90 per cent of the aircraft is planned to be manufactured in the US. This project is expected to create employment for as many as 17000 persons, spread across 34 states in the US. “This new aircraft will provide the advanced training capabilities we need to increase the lethality and effectiveness of future Air Force pilots,” Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson said in the statement. This is particularly relevant as the USAF is rapidly graduating to fifth generation platforms and it is only a matter of time that the service would be knocking on the doors of the sixth generation fighter and bomber aircraft. “This is all about joint war-fighting excellence. We need the T-X to optimise training for pilots heading into our growing fleet of fifth generation aircraft,” said Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Goldfein. “This aircraft will enable pilot training in a system similar to our fielded fighters, ultimately enhancing joint lethality,” he added.