MADRID — By the end of this decade, the Spanish Air Force will replace its half-century-old fighter trainers with data-centric aircraft to train its pilots to fly fifth- and sixth-generation jets. And even though a contract isn’t yet on the horizon, Airbus is ready to start building.

The aerospace company’s Spanish subsidiary presented its Advanced Fighter Jet Trainer concept last week during the biennial FEINDEF conference in Madrid, Spain. If selected, the AFJT would replace the Spanish Air Force’s Northrop F-5M and CASA C-101 Aviojet aircraft, which prepare airmen to fly EF-18A Hornets and Eurofighter Typhoons.

The AFJT is a clean-sheet design based on the Spanish Air Force’s operational requirements, Abel Nin, the company’s program lead, told Defense News on the sidelines of FEINDEF on Friday.

Currently, the aircraft is designed to measure about 46 feet from nose to tail, with a nearly 33-foot wingspan. The metal airframe will be damage-tolerant, resistant to corrosion and easy to repair, per Airbus.

Nin expects a prototype could fly four years after the program is formally launched. While the Air Force plans to buy at least 20 Eurofighter Typhoons to replace its oldest EF-18As, it may opt to buy more Typhoons or Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to replace its full Hornet fleet.

The AFJT will be capable of training pilots to fly EF-18As, Typhoons, F-35s and the Future Combat Air System’s sixth-generation fighter jet, Nin said.

The proposed integrated trainer system will feature live-virtual-constructive technology, and Indra is partnering with Airbus to develop simulators, Nin said.

While Madrid is Airbus’ main prospective customer, the AFJT could serve other countries. Representatives from the Mexican Air Force attended Friday’s panel discussion at FEINDEF, and company officials previously highlighted France and Finland as possible customers.

“The main purpose here is to initiate the project,” Nin said.

The Spanish Air Force submitted the operational requirements document for a new jet trainer in 2020, said Lt. Col. Jesus Gutierrez Gallego, who works with the service’s program planning division. The service doesn’t recommend a specific vendor, and now it’s up to the Defence Ministry to deliberate and decide whether Airbus will receive the contract, he told Defense News.

“We need it before the current system starts its sundown,” he said.

Air Force officials said the F-5M is expected to begin retiring from service between 2027 and 2030.

Ministry officials at the conference could not say when a decision on the trainer jet contract might be made, nor did they say whether any other companies submitted proposals for the F-5M replacement.

The F-5M has been in service for more than 50 years, said Lt. Col. Miguel Angel Marazuela Martinez, chief of the service’s 23rd Instruction and Attack Wing at Talavera la Real Air Base.

“The [training] system that we have currently is quite solid, and it’s been evolving for many, many years, but we have to help it out,” he said during the panel. “And we are going to do it with this new plane.”

The service is also investing in advanced technologies, including biometrics, artificial intelligence and data fusion, to more accurately train its pilots, Marazuela Martinez said.

Helmets equipped with cutting-edge sensors and biometric watches will help instructors define “what is the best learning curve of every single student in a personalized way,” he added.

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.

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