WASHINGTON — With U.S. President Donald Trump's attention fixed on the F-35 and Air Force One, the Air Force's biggest ongoing aircraft competition so far has gone untouched. But even without Trump's intervention, the T-X race has evolved into something not unlike an episode of a reality TV show, featuring industry teams breaking up, companies unexpectedly dropping out and upstart entries coming in at the last minute.
The T-X program began with four main competitors: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman — which developed a new prototype — and a Raytheon-Leonardo team offering the latter firm's M-346. Over the past couple of months, Northrop has pulled out of the competition, Raytheon dissolved its partnership with Leonardo — leaving the Italian firm to ally with its US wing, DRS Technologies — and several smaller companies, including Sierra Nevada and the nigh-unknown Stavatti Aerospace, decided to throw their designs into the ring.
Analysts tell Defense News that the drama overshadows the most important point: The competition has become a face-off between Boeing's clean-sheet T-X design and the Lockheed Martin-Korean Aerospace Industries' T-50A, the US derivative of a trainer flown by the South Korean, Iraqi, Philippine and Indonesian militaries.
And with the T-50 already in production and thousands of hours of flight time behind it, Boeing will face an uphill battle to keep Lockheed from cinching the contract.
"It looks like the emphasis is still very much on unit price and not much of anything else. It's [lowest price technically acceptable], basically, but with some window dressing," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. "And given the need to roll up the upfront development costs, Boeing is at a disadvantage. They'd have to be very aggressive price-wise. They obviously have a history of doing that with [the KC-46] tanker, but this clearly puts the advantage with Lockheed."
The elephant in the room is Trump's impact on defense acquisition, and whether his influence will be felt within the T-X program. Prior to Trump's presidency, the conversation revolved around how low the vendors could bid, and whether cost incentives for achieving performance specifications like high G and high angle of attack could sway the competition one way or another. That could be changing, said Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research.
"I think our question now is, how important is the business case for T-X? And as a business case, I think this takes about 45 seconds to give it to the T-50," she said. "Let's look at the Trump business case factor: You've got a great jet in production that meets all the requirements. Why aren't we just buying it?"
That was exactly the point Lockheed made as it hosted defense reporters at its plant in Greenville, S.C., to ride in the T-50A. Defense News, which accepted travel and hotel from Lockheed, flew in TX-2 on Feb. 21.
Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin
During the sortie, test pilot Elliott "Hemo" Clemence conducted air-to-air and air-to-ground training missions with TX-1 and a virtual T-50A — the first time Lockheed flew a three-ship formation with simulated and live T-50s. Clemence also showed off the performance of the jet, which hit two Air Force objectives during the flight: a higher-than-required 7.6 high G and 25 degrees of high angle of attack maneuverability.
But Boeing's twin-tailed jet could pose a formidable threat. Company officials have stressed that its innovative manufacturing process will decrease the cost of the plane and streamline production. They also have shied away from detailing how far the jet performs above threshold requirements, perhaps indicating that Boeing is prioritizing cost over meeting performance objectives.
Boeing has built two jets in order to prove the repeatability of its manufacturing processes, according to Ted Torgerson, the company's program manager. The first jet, T1, made its debut flight in December and has been proceeding with flight tests, demonstrating high angle of attack, high Gs, rolls and landing from the aft seat of the cockpit, among other maneuvers.
T2 recently wrapped up production and is undergoing subsystem tests ahead of its first flight, he said.
Aboulafia and Grant agreed that Boeing might be able to sweep the competition if it bids low enough and can prove its design is low risk. But in the end, with the rising profile of the Super Hornet program and the potential for new orders that could extend the company's production line into the future, Boeing may play it safe.
"Boeing is going to have to estimate a lot of their production numbers, which they are perfectly capable of doing. But how is that viewed in the long run?" Grant said. "Boeing has a lot of other fish to fry. The Super Hornet is very much alive, they have F-15s for Saudi Arabia, a whole commercial aircraft industry. At what point do they look at this and say, do we win by letting this go?"
"For Boeing to win, they're going to have to really be aggressive on price. And they're going to have to really want it. Do they?"
The Dark Horse Trainers
There are other companies that could take a surprise victory in the $16 billion competition, which encompasses 350 T-X aircraft. The Air Force intends to award a contract later this year, with initial operating capability planned by the end of fiscal 2024.
After General Dynamics and Raytheon both discontinued their partnerships with Leonardo, the Italian firm decided to offer its M-346 trainer, rebranded the T-100 for the U.S. market, with the help of its subsidiary DRS Technologies as prime contractor. But although the jet is mature — having been flown by the air forces of Italy, Israel, Singapore, and Poland — analysts have doubts about whether it is the best fit for the Air Force's needs.
"Third time is not the charm. Two US defense primes walked away for a combination of cost and customer requirement issues. Those issues are still in play," Aboulafia said.
Sierra Nevada and Turkish Aerospace industries have created a "Freedom Trainer" prototype, which was designed to be ultra-low cost and fuel efficient, but it is unclear whether the aircraft has flown yet.
Stavatti Aerospace, a Minnesota-based firm that has never sold any of its aircraft concepts to a U.S. service or foreign military, has also claimed it will enter the competition with its twin-engine Javelin design. Photos on the Stavatti website seem to show some kind of a prototype, but it is unknown whether the aircraft is to scale or is flyable.
Meanwhile, Textron AirLand still is not ready to confirm whether it will put forward its Scorpion jet, a company spokeswoman said.
One company that won't be participating is Northrop Grumman, the maker of the Air Force's current training jet, the T-38. It walked away from the competition in January, stating then that pursuing the contract was not in the "best interests" of the company despite having built a prototype jet.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and 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.