New Design Wins over Upgrades for Next US Air Force Military Jet Trainer Aircraft

Part 2 in a two-part series

Boeing won a $9.2 billion contract to deliver a new jet trainer for the US Air Force T-X program, replacing the 1960s era Northrop T-38 Talon. An initial $815 million contract covers the development and production of the first five jet trainer aircraft plus seven flight simulators, with delivery slated for 2023. It will be followed by two batches of aircraft in low-rate production and eight full-production aircraft with an initial operating capability (IOC) expected in 2024. (Click here to read part 1 of this two-part series.)

The total T-X aircraft buy will be for 351 aircraft plus 46 simulators, but this might eventually rise to 475 and 120 simulators. Deliveries of the announced orders are expected to carry through until 2034 when the last T-38s will finally be replaced, but the supersonic performance of the T-X will allow its role to be expanded, if required, to possibly also take over aggressor air combat training, which is currently performed by former front-line fighters, supplemented by contractor-supplied flying services. While the USAF is now creating the market lead in adopting an all-new design, other nations will be watching closely as the program moves forward.

A major focus will be to see if the costs can be contained to meet the high expectations resulting from the winning bid in this competition, which seems to have knocked a massive $10 billion off the expected budget. The program will start as a fixed-price contract and it is intended that, as production blocks are delivered, firm fixed prices will be agreed.

If costs can be contained and delays avoided, then the increased flow of airplanes may allow the USAF’s aspiration to order 475 to be achieved. If all goes well, then by the time the T-X is in service, it is likely that export orders will have been added to the USAF sales, and this should guarantee a long-term future over the next two decades for Boeing’s St. Louis plant. This facility is currently dependent on F-18E Super Hornet orders, and badly needed a new military air program to maintain and safeguard its design and production capacity.

Saab’s experience in developing its own high-performance supersonic fighters and training aircraft and advanced manufacturing knowledge, combined with its ability to manage complex systems integration in a lean manufacturing environment, has undoubtedly assisted Boeing emerging with what appears to be a very cost-effective solution into which the customer has enthusiastically bought. Along the way, it will result in new ways of building and supporting advanced aircraft designs, now essential in keeping programs affordable.

As production is established, some 90 percent of the T-X will be manufactured in the US and an estimated 17,000 jobs sustained in the supply chain. The contract includes the supply of support systems and equipment; unlike when adopting legacy support assets, these can now be built to an optimized specification using the latest materials and techniques to enhance build quality, minimize waste, and improve environmental manufacturing conditions. Efficiency will be key at all stages, and this genuine 21st century product will be built from the start to incorporate system architectures that will allow regular upgrades throughout its life.

These developments will require considerable new investment, but will help Boeing to remain a leading defense manufacturer with experience feeding into other new programs in the coming years. The company is emerging from 2018 with some important new contracts in place, which includes the new MQ-25  Stingray unmanned aerial tanker aircraft, worth $805 million, and so it can gear up with increased confidence as eyes turn to the next big USAF program – a sixth-generation fighter to follow the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35.

Richard Gardner  is an experienced public relations consultant, author, and editor, specializing in aerospace, defense, and transport as well as high-tech industry. Read more from Richard Gardner on .

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