FORT WORTH, Texas — As the U.S. Air Force prepares to announce the results of the T-X trainer jet competition this summer, the head of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics is confident its joint bid with Korea Aerospace Industries won’t be hampered by a recent scandal involving KAI executives.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that KAI had won a U.S. Air Force contract to maintain F-16 jets without disclosing that several of its current and former executives had been indicted in a corruption case.
The executives were accused of bribery, embezzlement and defrauding the South Korean government, and experts told the Post that — should KAI had altered its previous filings, as required — the company could have come under greater scrutiny.
Orlando Carvalho, Lockheed’s executive vice president of its aeronautics division, said he doesn’t expect that trouble to bleed over to the T-X competition, where KAI and Lockheed are partnered to offer the T-50A.
“The KAI matter is between KAI and the Air Force and the government,” he told Defense News in an exclusive interview Friday. “We have no involvement or participation in any of that. It revolves around a contract that KAI has directly with the Air Force, that’s outside of anything that we do with KAI.”
Lockheed has not been contacted by the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. Air Force for additional information regarding its relationship with KAI, he said.
“Our expectation is that KAI will continue to address and ultimately resolve this issue they have, and our hope [is] they will do it in an expedient matter and allow everything to progress appropriately on the APT side,” Carvalho said, using an acronym that stands for Advanced Pilot Trainer, another name for the T-X program.
KAI was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month, when it was revealed that the company had paid $150,000 to Michael Cohen — best known as U.S. President Donald Trump’s former private lawyer — for consulting services.
The bad press comes as the Air Force is on the verge to award the T-X trainer contract, which is expected sometime this summer. The entire 350-aircraft program is valued at $16.3 billion, and further sales internationally or to the other U.S. services could be possible.
Lockheed and KAI’s T-50A will compete against a clean-sheet design proposed by Boeing and Saab as well as a version of Leonardo’s M-346 trainer, which is operated by Italy, Singapore and Israel and is being marketed in the United States as the T-100.
The T-50A is a version of the Korean firm’s supersonic T-50 trainer in use by South Korea, Indonesia, Iraq and the Philippines.
Lockheed’s decades-long relationship with KAI continues to be “very strong,” Carvalho said. The partnership dates back to the 1990s, when KAI produced a version of the F-16 domestically in South Korea. The T-50, South Korea’s first indigenous supersonic aircraft, is heavily influenced by the F-16.
The T-50 is seen as a front-runner to the competition by some analysts, who attribute that to the aircraft’s high-performance capability and the fact that it is already in production. Lockheed’s experience on the F-35 program is also seen as an advantage, as the T-X will be used to train a generation of F-35 pilots.
The projected T-X contract date had already slipped once, from before the end of 2017 to sometime this summer, but the Air Force maintains it will keep to its current schedule.
Carvalho said the U.S. government’s rate of questions to the competitors is slowing, and the hope is that it could soon request final pricing data from the companies — a sign that a down-select is soon on the way.
“Our expectation is that we’ll see that request soon,” he said. “Our hope is that we’ll see the request in July, and hopefully that will enable a source selection in August or earlier.”
If the T-50 fails to win T-X, Carvalho said, Lockheed will look for other opportunities to help KAI sell the aircraft in the international market. One possibility is the eventual replacement of the U.S. Navy’s T-45 trainer jet, although the companies would need to ensure that the T-50 could be qualified to land on a carrier deck.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.