WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is poised to announce the winner of the T-X program later this year, an event that will shake up the jet trainer market by giving one of the competitors a solid grip on sales of at least 350 aircraft.
But unlike the F-35 program, which has engendered massive international buy-in and cooperation, foreign nations have historically seen less value in state-of-the-art training jets — meaning a T-X victory alone won't be enough to entice overwhelming success in the international market, analysts told Defense News.
"I don't think simply winning T-X gains you a huge number of new customers outside the United States. It will help, but it won't be a slam dunk," said Douglas Royce, an aerospace analyst with Forecast International.
While there are a number of countries interested in buying trainer aircraft over the next decade — to include Sweden, Taiwan, Belgium and Egypt — the overall market remains small, with countries buying only 10 or 20 aircraft at a time and able to defer future trainer purchases almost indefinitely, he said.
Royce estimated a jet trainer market of $13.8 billion from 2016 to 2026, a figure that includes aircraft procurement but not support services, simulators or other associated costs. The T-X program makes up about $2 billion of that, with production conservatively estimated to start in 2023 and 86 aircraft purchased from then until 2026.
Three teams have confirmed that they have submitted T-X bids: Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries, which put forward the T-50A; Boeing and Saab, which developed a clean sheet trainer; and DRS Technologies and its parent company, Leonardo, which will offer the T-100. Sierra Nevada Corp. and Turkish Aerospace Industries, or TAI, which have developed a new "Freedom Trainer" design, are also probable entrants.
The U.S. Air Force intends to buy 350 T-X aircraft over its program of record. Beyond that, Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, believes there is only room to sell about 200 to 300 units — optimistically speaking — to international customers.
"You get to be king of a very small hill," he said. "Everyone overstates this market, and they understate its fragmentation."
The T-50A and T-100 are based on designs that have already been sold to multiple customers worldwide. The T-50A was derived from Korea Aerospace Industries' T-50, currently in service with South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Iraq. Meanwhile, Italian aerospace manufacturer Leonardo used its M-346 — which is currently operated by Italy, Israel, Singapore and Poland — as the basis for the T-100.
No matter who wins T-X, the T-50 and M-346 will continue to be strong challengers in later competitions. But of all the teams, a win for Boeing-Saab's clean sheet design has the most potential to shake up the space by introducing a new competitor with a huge foothold in the market — and the ability to price aircraft accordingly, Royce said.
Boeing, which has produced two prototypes, is expected to emphasize the affordability of its offering for the Air Force trainer competition.
Photo Credit: Boeing
"Assumedly, their costs are going to be spread across a lot more airframes, so it might be tougher for someone like the M-346 to compete against them on price if the economies of scale allow Boeing to undercut the competition," he said.
If Boeing and Saab prove victorious in T-X, the companies will almost certainly win Sweden's trainer competition as well, Royce said. The same would be true for all trainer manufacturers with a parochial interest.
Swedish Air Force officials have hinted as much publicly. In May, Col. Magnus Liljegren, head of the Air Force department at the Swedish Armed Forces Headquarters, told reporters that it would likely purchase a cheaper turboprop trainer unless the Boeing-Saab T-X was an option. The Air Force later walked back those comments, saying that the government "will not define which manufacturers that may be potential suppliers of a new trainer aircraft for the Swedish Air Force" at this time.
A win for Boeing would be a major blow to Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries' T-50 aircraft, the other major supersonic trainer aircraft. With only a small customer base able to pony up the cash for a supersonic trainer, the T-50 could be crowded out of the market if it has to compete against Boeing-Saab's T-X.
"It's [South Korea's] national aircraft; they've put a lot of work into it; and if Boeing wins, it's going to be an uphill battle against them. If Boeing loses, it's the sunk cost," Aboulafia said. "Other than the sunk cost, it's hard to say what they lose."
Leonardo DRS's T-100 trainer jet, based on the M-346, is one of the entrants for the T-X competition.
Photo Credit: Leonardo DRS
The transonic M-346 might fare better in competition, even if one of the other vendors wins T-X, because of its lower costs. But it's not a slam dunk — Aboulafia noted that flyaway costs on the M-346 continue to amount to about $25 million per plane, almost as much as the T-50.
So where could the T-X competitors scoop up international sales?
Japan is likely the biggest opportunity for high-end jet trainers, and as an F-35 customer could have reason to buy the same aircraft as the United States. The country currently operates a fleet of about 200 T-4s, and would likely start to replace its jet trainers in the 2030 time frame, Aboulafia said.
Another possibility is a NATO joint trainer program, an idea that has been floated for about a decade but never materialized. If countries decide to move forward on the concept, Leonardo's M-346 could have the home-field advantage.
"Certainly, the Italians are banking on that," Aboulafia said.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has had a longstanding requirement for 48 trainer jets, and Brazil is considering a buy of upward of 18 aircraft, but both countries have put off the acquisition. Royce said Belgium and Egypt may also be options for near-term T-X sales.
Other opportunities seem less likely. For instance, Taiwan has an ongoing requirement for a high-end trainer, but the government has decided to pursue an indigenous design, Aboulafia said. Israel in theory could buy more jets. But it's military has been happy with the M-346 its bought so far and could continue buying them no matter who wins T-X, he added.
Sierra Nevada and TAI have said little about their Freedom Trainer, remaining secretive even about basic details like whether they would continue developing the aircraft if the T-X contract proves out of reach.
But there's reason to believe the companies could move forward even if they lose T-X. Turkey is a current T-38 user and F-35 customer, so buying another high-end trainer could be a logical move, Royce said.
The country has expressed interest in buying a homegrown training aircraft, and the Sierra Nevada-TAI joint venture could be a good fit. But Aboulafia noted that Turkey is balancing the development of many indigenous aircraft and may not have the money to fund all of them.
In the end, the biggest market for future T-X sales might not lie outside of the United States, but within it. If the winning aircraft can be outfitted with landing gear, the T-X could be well-positioned for a future competition to replace the Navy's T-45 trainers, said Mike Blades, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan. The aircraft's aerodynamic performance and high-end training pod will also make it a great candidate for performing the "Red Air" role for the Air Force, with potential sales of about 100 jets in that market.
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.