WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman's decision to launch a clean-sheet design for the Air Force's T-X trainer replacement program caught the aviation industry off-guard.

The new design, which is already in production and will fly this year, seemed to come out of nowhere, especially since the company had been promoting the BAE Hawk trainer system as its option for the T-X competition over the past four years.

But while a surprise, the announcement plan ​actually fits with the plan Northrop's aerospace division has been putting together in recent years. The division has quietly reshaped itself into one that is banking on rapid prototyping and creative designs to help it win a series of key competitions that analysts say will determine nothing less than whether the company continues to produce military aircraft. airframes.

Tom Vice, Northrop's president of aerospace, laid out his vision of the division's future to reporters during a Northrop-funded-and-arranged trip to the company's facilities in southern California Jan. 20 and 21.

To start with, Vice said the company will would ​stay firmly within itself and focus on its three core areas of manned aircraft, autonomous systems and space systems.

"For us, we remain disciplined on these three areas because we see the opportunities, and we see the experiences we have, the capabilities we have, the technology we have," Vice said. "We don't need to venture out of that and look for adjacencies. These markets are where we're going to focus."

The area to venture outside the box in, however, is research. It was clear through his comments that Vice believes the company needs to double down on its research and development (R&D) investment.

"I firmly believe, as I think this company firmly believes, that we need to continue to invest in research," he said. "It's not something that we as an industry, we as a company, cannot reduce."

That's not just doing research that directly affects

impacts

​specific projects, but includes overall dives into new technological development. Vice highlighted a 1 terahertz chip developed by Northrop Aerospace as an example of how the company does "an enormous amount of things that we typically don't show, that are pushing state of the art."

At the same time, Vice acknowledged that the company can't just develop the new tech without taking advantage of it.

"What we've been able to accomplish, and I think it's going to be very unique, is not only the development of the technologies, the science, but capturing those new technologies," Vice said. "Then take [new] technologies and be able to introduce new systems with them. That linkage is what's important."

Along those lines, Northrop has been hosting a series of meetings with universities and research labs around the country on state-of-the-art future technologies to try to

and

​understand what the company should be investigating with its R&D money.

"We're reaching out," Vice said. "This is, I believe, going to set us apart in terms of the way that we look at the future, future weapon system and future exploration systems."

Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, said investing heavily in research has "historically been part of Northrop's genetic makeup," but that the company has not capitalized on it recently.

"I can't say there has really been evidence of that in the last couple of years," he said. "The view was the company was hunkered down, not taking risks, and primarily working on the products of other acquisitions."

One major asset Callan says the company should use more is its Scaled Composites subsidiary. Purchased in 2007, Scaled has a long history of rapid prototyping and developing out-of-the-box ideas, and while it would be easy to compare Scaled to Boeing's Phantom Works or Lockheed's Skunk Works units, Vice insisted the company operates differently, in large part because of its semi-autonomous nature.

While Northrop owns Scaled, the firm is able to take on business from the defense or commercial sectors with minimal approval from Northrop, said Kevin Mickey, president at Scaled Composites. Both he and Vice said that accepting programs outside Northrop's key areas, such as the massive StratoLaunch system commissioned by

XXXX

Paul Allen, helps inject new ideas and technology back into Northrop.

Northrop seems to be increasing its relationship with Scaled at a time when the company is relying more on quick designs and prototyping. Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said that's a good direction for Northrop to move in — especially as the company is about to enter a dangerous period in its history.

Both Callan and Aboulafia agree that if Northrop cannot land either the new Long Range Strike-Bomber contract or the T-X agreement, they are in serious trouble of being chased out of the military airframe production business. If that happens, the aerospace division could

potentially

​be sold to a competitor such as Boeing, or focus more on becoming a design shop than a producer of physical systems.

The best way to win those competitions may be to focus on the research and rapid prototyping side of things, Aboulafia said — in other words, following the current approach.

"It's a very focused approach. And it's intriguing," Aboulafia said.

T-X Design

Vice's comments read like a roadmap on how Northrop and its partners plan to develop a brand new aircraft for the T-X competition, which will replace the Air Force's fleet of aged T-38 trainer aircraft.

It starts with Scaled Composites, which is working with Northrop engineers to design the prototype plane at its Mojave, California, facilities.

Marc Lindsley, Northrop's T-X program head, said Scaled is bringing its rapid prototyping capabilities to bear on the jet design, which is already in the assembly stage, with a first flight expected sometime this year.

The idea to do a new clean-sheet design was hatched almost two years ago, Lindsley said, but the final decision happened in the past few months. Until then, Northrop had been working with BAE and L-3 to push the former's Hawk training system as the solution for the Air Force. That changed when the service began firming up requirements.

"[After] the open dialogue with industry, the understanding of what the requirements and capabilities are, and what the costs are of those requirements, we have an opportunity with this clean-sheet design to give them exactly what they want, and that's what we want to do," Lindsley said.

"You're also designing the aircraft with modern manufacturing capabilities and growth potential, because let's keep in mind that were proposing an aircraft that's replacing one that's been flying for 50 years," Lindsley added, noting that baking in the ability to easily upgrade and modify the design will be important if this T-X design is to last for several decades.

The T-X program intends to replace the Air Force's fleet of T-38 training aircraft with a more highly advanced jet capable of training pilots for use in fifth-generation fighters such as the F-22 and F-35. The service plans to issue

on issuing

​a request for proposals

an RFP

​on the program in the fourth quarter of fiscal

year

​2016, with a projected contract award in the fall of 2017.

While Northrop is the prime, the company is hoping to keep the Hawk team together to help provide the family-of-systems approach desired by the Air Force.

The company is in discussion with BAE about including the British company's core training system, which simulates radar threats and other training requirements and would

, will

​ form the core of the new jet's internal systems. BAE would also assist on production and design. L-3, meanwhile, will continue in its role as the provider of ground-training systems such as simulators and classroom activities.

While BAE may be a partner on the program, the design likely means production on the Hawk will be coming to an end, Aboulafia noted.

A BAE spokesman confirmed the company is in discussions with Northrop about the use of its advanced jet training system, which he called "a key part of the new aircraft solution which is being designed to meet the USAF's very specific requirements."

As to the new T-X design, it's a risk. But at this point, Callan said, Northrop needs to take risks to survive.

"It's an imperative, if they are going to stay in the business, that they lean forward, takerisks, hire the best they can, break molds and go back to what they were," Callan said. "If not, then let someone else run the business, or sell these things off."

Email: amehta@defensenews.comTwitter: