Air Force wants to replace jet trainers

Even as funding remains uncertain in an era of budget austerity, the Air Force met more than 300 aerospace industry representatives at Wright-Patterson about building a replacement for an aging jet trainer fleet in a future competition.

The Air Force has its sights set on an initial purchase of 350 new aircraft along with a pilot training system, dubbed the T-X program, by the next decade to replace the T-38 Talon, the last of which rolled off a production line more than four decades ago. But no funding beyond planning has been guaranteed for the program.

At Wright-Patterson last week, industry representatives from about 20 aerospace firms were briefed about Air Force needs and gave the military an opportunity to explore what the market could offer, officials said. The Air Force wants to begin to replace the jet trainer between 2020 to 2024, industry leaders were told, to train about 400 fighter and bomber pilots every year. The deal is expected to include flight simulators and multimedia educational and logistics support.

Col. Dale Van Dusen, chief of the training aircraft division at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson, said the new aircraft must be “as affordable as possible” to meet budget needs. The Department of Defense is under the threat of automatic, massive spending cuts if Congress and President Barack Obama don’t reach an agreement on sequestration by March 1. Also, a continuing resolution to fund the federal government is set to expire March 27.

The twin-engine, supersonic T-38 took flight in 1959 and has trained more than 71,000 Air Force pilots. The last of 1,187 models were built in 1972. The Air Force has about 470 left in the Air Education and Training Command ranks. Northrop Grumman, the original manufacturer, has estimated the average airframe has flown about 15,000 hours and the aircraft with the highest flight times have more than 19,000 hours in the air. Over the years, the Air Force has replaced major components, such as the wings, avionics and engines, to keep the aging jets airborne.

“With any aging airframe, just keeping it flying economically is a challenge,” Van Dusen said. Even so, he added, “The T-38 is still continuing strong and part of what we’re looking at is we may be able to keep it longer than we anticipate now.”

The new aircraft also would replace the F-16D Fighting Falcon in a “bridge program” that prepares student pilots to fly the fifth generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor.

Where the service will find money to buy and field the new jets in an era of budget cuts will be difficult, one defense analyst said.

“I’m not so sure how they can keep the schedule,” said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. “On the other hand, they have to do it starting this decade sometime.”

The Air Force has made a priority of buying the Boeing KC-46A aerial tanker, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and a new long-range strike bomber, he said. The average age of an Air Force aircraft is about 25 years.

Chicago-based Boeing expects to offer the Air Force a new design for the T-X competition, while other U.S. firms will pair with foreign aerospace manufacturers to pitch jet trainers flying today. In each case, final assembly of the Air Force jets will be in the United States, company spokespersons said.

“Over the past several years, Boeing has conducted extensive studies of both new and derivative platforms as well as many industry teaming approaches,” the company said in a statement. “Our analysis consistently indicate an all-new, purpose-built solution will provide the most affordable and effective solution to the Air Force’s advanced flight training requirements.”

General Dynamics will partner with Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi to offer the T-100, a variant of the M-346 jet trainer. Italy, Israel and Singapore fly the jet.

“It was developed specifically as a trainer for the global markets,” said Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics C4 Systems in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“It’s going to bring a lot of jobs to bear across the country and across the world if you consider Alenia’s involvement,” he said.

Lockheed Martin will partner with Korean Aerospace Industries to field the T-50, a multirole aircraft that has trained South Korean jet pilots since 2007. The plane can mimic the performance characteristics of the latest jet fighters, such as the F-35, said B.J. Bowling, a Lockheed Martin spokesman in Fort Worth, Texas.

Northrop Grumman has partnered with British-based BAE Systems Inc. and L-3 Link to pitch the Hawk Advanced Jet Training System. Britain, Saudi Arabia and Oman have chosen the Hawk T2 aircraft, the latest variant of the Hawk trainer, according to Lisa Hillary-Tee, a BAE Systems spokeswoman in Herndon, Va.

“BAE Systems has built almost 1,000 Hawk aircraft in total, helping to produce highly trained combat pilots from 25 countries, with more than 3 million flying hours logged,” she said in an email.

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