WASHINGTON — Don't count Italy's Leonardo out of the T-X trainer jet competition yet. Although its competitors Boeing and Lockheed Martin have drawn the lion's share of the limelight since Leonardo and Raytheon parted ways on the program, the Italian firm believes it can win the contract with its low-cost T-100.
Leonardo's T-X offering is one of the most mature planes proposed in the competition, but it has had issues keeping a U.S. prime contractor onboard, with both General Dynamics and then Raytheon jumping ship. The company announced in February that its U.S. subsidiary Leonardo DRS would take the reins — a decision that DRS's CEO Bill Lynn said will put the T-100 in a better position than ever.
"As the RFP [request for proposals] was developed, it evolved more and more to a focus on price, and I think the Leonardo-DRS combination is best positioned to get to that lowest price," Lynn said in an exclusive interview with Defense News on March 7.
Leonardo DRS's T-100 is a version of the M-346 training jet, which is operated by Italy and Israel—two countries planning to operate the F-35—as well as Singapore and Poland. It will compete against Lockheed Martin's T-50A, a version of Korean Aerospace Industries' T-50 trainer flown by South Korea and other air forces—as well as clean sheet designs from a Boeing-Saab team and a Sierra Nevada Corp.-Turkish Aerospace industries team.
The T-X competition has drawn on for years, with an ongoing debate over whether the Air Force should prioritize price or capability. In the end, the service put forward a request for proposals (RPF) that emphasizes the value of low-cost entries, but also includes incentives that allow offerors with high-performing aircraft to lower the price of their bid, increasing their chance of a win.
Asked whether Leonardo would offer a cheaper proposal alone than it would have been able to offer with Raytheon, Lynn said he didn't have specific knowledge on whether the Raytheon-Leonardo team had settled on the proposal's total evaluated price.
However, he thinks that that the DRS-fronted team would be "leaner" than it would have been with another company priming the effort, and that it is in a position to put forward the most "cost-effective" bid.
"There's less cost structure, there are fewer layers and less overhead," he explained. "I think we have the most proven aircraft. I think we have the best embedded training system, and I think if we have the lowest price, I think we will win."
The biggest challenge, according to Lynn, is managing the work that needs to be done before the deadline to submit bids on March 30. Leonardo publicly ended its partnership with Raytheon on Jan. 25, and announced its decision to partner with DRS a few scant weeks later on Feb 7 — giving the companies less than two months to finalize its proposal.
"We know how to manage U.S. programs," he said. "We're on track to hit that March 30 deadline, and we'll get a compelling proposal in."
Leonardo DRS is also hard at work finalizing other details. For instance, DRS will announce the site of a new U.S.-based manufacturing facility over the next weeks, where final assembly and some subassembly will occur.
Raytheon and Leonardo had expected to build a new Final Assembly and Check Out plant in Meridian, Miss., but those plans were dashed when the team dissolved.
The company is still working out exactly how much of the plane will be made in the United States, but Lynn said it will easily be a majority. Its partners will also do most of their work in the United States, with Honeywell manufacturing the T-100's twin F124 turbofan propulsion engines in Arizona and CAE producing the ground-based training system in Orlando, Fla.
The Air Force's current program of record includes 350 T-X planes, corresponding ground training systems and support, but Lynn believes the winner of the competition will have the chance to land further orders both in the United States and internationally.
"The winner of this competition is well positioned, especially with the countries that buy the F-35," he said. "The Air Force is likely to buy more than that, and the international sales may be equal to the air force sales."
In the United States, future opportunities for the winner include a possible light attack jet buy or a potential order of modified T-X aircraft in the mid 2020s to be used in Red Air scenarios. The service may also decide it needs more training aircraft further down the line, as it currently operates about 500 T-38s.