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T-X Competition Moves Forward, Despite Funding Challenges

Jan. 28, 2013 - 07:19AM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
The winner of the T-X competition will replace Northrop Grumman's T-38 Talon, in use since 1959.
The winner of the T-X competition will replace Northrop Grumman's T-38 Talon, in use since 1959. (File)
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Amid a cloud of uncertainty over just how the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation trainer jet program will be funded, several hundred industry representatives showed up for three days of meetings with T-X program officials.

About 325 people attended the Jan. 29 introductory open session to T-X Industry Days, held at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Participants included representatives of major aircraft and training system integrating manufacturers as well as companies interested in providing common or unique subcomponents. They talked with officials from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and Air Education and Training Command about the aircraft’s developing requirements.

“The event was very successful in advancing our market research of Advanced Pilot Training possibilities and for our efforts to increase affordability of the systems and services we may seek from industry,” said Col. Dale J. VanDusen of AFLCMC’s training aircraft division.

T-X Program Needs

Despite a push by the Air Force, acquisition funds for the T-X program were not included in the fiscal 2012 budget. Because the federal government is operating under a continuing resolution that leaves the budget at 2012 levels, the program will be unfunded as long as the continuing resolution is in effect. Senior Defense Department officials have made it clear they don’t know if or when the resolution will be replaced with a new budget.

The winner of the T-X competition will replace Northrop Grumman’s T-38 Talon, in use since 1959.

“The T-38 needs a replacement system by sometime in the 2020s,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. The deadline that means the replacement program needs to be up and running “by the end of this decade” at the latest, he said.

“It’s a program that needs to happen, and it is by no means clear how to fund it,” Aboulafia said. “It’s one of those things they’re just gonna have to find the cash, even though it’s not a shooter.”

The T-X program office is working to “evaluate cost versus performance trades to ensure that we maximize our return on investment as we proceed through a severely fiscally constrained period,” Ed Gulick, Air Force spokesman, wrote in an email.

He also noted that the fiscal 2013 budget set a target of 2020 for initial operating capability.

The winner of the competition will supply the primary training vehicle for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as well as existing planes such as the F-15 and F-16.

The Competition

The industry event occured two weeks after Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi announced a partnership with General Dynamics to offer its T-100 jet to the program. Alenia is a subsidiary of Italian giant Finmeccanica. The trainer has been purchased by Italy, Israel and Singapore.

Alenia’s offering is “very contemporary,” said Chris Marzilli, president of GD’s C4 Systems. “I believe as a corporation, having done our homework, that we have a winner both from a technical performance and an affordability aspect.”

Despite funding challenges, Marzilli believes a formal request for proposal will be issued in “early 2014,” with selection that year.

The Alenia-GD partnership is the latest entrant into a program whose bidders include partnerships between BAE Systems and Northrop, pitching its Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, and Lockheed Martin, which is offering the Korean Aerospace Industries’ T-50.

Mike Griswold, Lockheed’s director of business development on the T-X competition, told Defense News late last year that Lockheed’s role as lead contractor for the F-35 is an advantage for its offering.

In contrast to the other competitors, Boeing plans to offer a new aircraft.

“Our analysis consistently indicates a purpose-built solution will provide the most affordable and effective solution to the Air Force’s advanced flight training requirements,” spokeswoman Karen Fincutter wrote in a statement.

Aboulafia said it is unclear whether the Air Force will look at marketing the trainer abroad as a light combat aircraft, and is uncertain what market there would be for such a craft.

“The market is bifurcated, basically going between medium-weight combat planes [such as an F-16] and not having much of an air force,” Aboulafia said.

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