WASHINGTON — The decision by General Dynamics Information Systems & Technology to remove itself as the prime contractor on the T-100 has thrown the competition to develop the US Air Force's next-generation trainer into disarray.
General Dynamics has been acting as the prime contractor and integrator for the T-100, a modified version of the M-346 trainer sold by Italian firm Alenia Aermacchi.
According to the spokeswoman, General Dynamics made the decision to remove itself as prime in the fourth quarter of 2014, and the official requirements released by the service March 20 played no role in the decision. She added that the company is "still assessing" what future role, if any, it will have on the T-100.
"When the program was as an off-the-shelf airplane, we believed that our program management skills provided value-add to the customer," the spokeswoman added. "However, as the program moved from an off-the-shelf-only airplane to a more engineered trainer, we no longer believed that value proposition existed."
That leaves the T-100 with an uncertain future.
"I don't think anyone wants another Airbus situation," Aboulafia said, referencing the European firm's failed attempt at winning the service's tanker contract. "It's conceivable, but unlikely."
In fact, a spokesman for Alenia said the company — whose CEO, Giuseppe Giordo, was replaced the same day as General Dynamics' announcement — is in talks with another US prime.
Aboulafia identified Raytheon as one option, but noted that does not really fit the Massachusetts-based company's profile.
Another potential alternative would be Textron, but that company plans to enter a trainer variant of its Scorpion ISR-light attack aircraft in the competition. If the Scorpion bows out, it could behoove both companies to team up.
But Bryon Callan of Capital Alpha Partners said he doesn't see that as a compelling team, as Textron has shown no wavering in its support for the Scorpion. Instead, Callan identified L-3 as the most likely contender, with the caveat that there is no clear reason for the company to jump onto the T-100.
However, L-3's simulation arm is a major partner on Northrop's offering, and the company may not want to create internal competition.
"It's become clear the Air Force seems to be scaling up its T-X requirements," Aboulafia said. "The T-100 might not be able to give them all they want."
That change from the desire for an off-the-shelf system to a more advanced capability is best exemplified in the decision by Northrop Grumman to abandon plans to offer BAE's legacy Hawk training system for T-X. Instead, the company and its corporate partners are offering a clean-sheet design, something executives have said came about after communication with the Air Force over projected requirements.
They both cite the fact T-X is the first program to operate under the "Bending the Cost Curve" initiative launched this year by service Secretary Deborah Lee James.
"At the core of Bending the Cost Curve is an increased dialogue with industry, a more deliberate and open dialogue with industry, to better inform government decisions to get a better-capable, lower- cost platform for the DoD," Dunlop said. "We could not have done what we have done in the last year [with developing requirements] if we hadn't been already engaged with industry."
Combined with a program delay, those conversations have led to changes in the expected competition. But while that means the clean-sheet designs have gotten a boost, Dennis sees a benefit for the legacy systems to also compete on price.
"There are people in industry who have decided to invest considerable coinage into their own offering," Dennis said. But "improving their offering doesn't [just] mean making it better in the sense of the platform and performance. It may mean driving out other elements of risk, getting down that total ownership cost, because remember, it's a family of systems."
Driving cost down is probably the best way for the T-100 to continue to compete. Meanwhile, Dunlop expressed optimism that having multiple competitors is good for the Pentagon overall.
"I feel very confident that the early dialogue with industry means we are going to get more capable platforms coming to the table," she said, "and that having multiple platforms at the table will ultimately lower the cost and give us a more capable T-X."
The generals offered two countering examples of how the dialogue has shaped the requirements.
The first is in a large-area display for inside the cockpit. Industry pitched the idea of including such a display because it would more closely resemble the avionics setup of the F-35 joint strike fighter, but Dunlop rejected the idea, as it was not part of the requirements. But the open flow of dialogue ended up changing the service's mind.
"Through dialogue and their own research did they come back and show us that it was actually a lower-cost solution that provided more adaptability for the long term," Dunlop said. "So that became a requirement because of the dialogue we had with industry."
The flip is also true. Many in industry pitched the idea of making the T-X customizable for whatever jet the pilot wants to train on, switching out systems to be more like an F-16, F-22 or F-35. The service rejected such a proposal because it was too much money, and industry moved on before investing significantly in such capabilities.
"This is a very positive movement for government, because industry is solving that problem on their own, they're driving to the capability we need, they're lowering the cost — and all that we needed to do as a government was come in with very clear requirements," she said.
If the T-100 bows out of competition, those partnerships may change as well. The simulation aspect of the T-100 bid is handled by CAE USA, which has a broader relationship with the M-346 worldwide.
A spokesperson for CAE USA said the company has no plans to change its teaming on the T-100. But if Alenia throws in the towel, the Tampa, Florida-based firm could look to join another T-X team.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.