The Air Force's New Trainer Competition Is Looking Good!

Air Force T-38 Trainer
It looks like the competition for the Air Force's new training aircraft is heating up!

The T-X Program

In March of 2015, the Air Force announced their T-X program. This program is searching for a replacement aircraft for the Northrop T-38C training aircraft that serves as the bridge between primary training on the T-6 Texan and the extremely advanced and complicated fighters that pilots end up flying, like the F-22 and F-35.

While contracts for smaller and less-expensive (and less prestigious) training aircraft might normally fly under the radar, in these times of shrinking budgets and cutting costs, this contract has gotten lots of attention from aerospace companies.

This contract is expected to be for about 350 aircraft, although extended capabilities (or other purchases) could push the actual total closer to 1,000. In addition to working on advanced concepts like formation flying, mid-air refueling, and advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground attack, the T-X aircraft will also prepare pilots for the complex information and systems management that they will need in other 5th-generation fighters.

The T-X Entries - So Far

A few months ago Boeing-Saab announced a joint entry into the USAF's T-X program. This single-engine aircraft features large control surfaces, twin tail, and is on the large side for a trainer aircraft.

In addition to the Boeing-Saab aircraft, though, there is some interesting competition. Northrop Grumman has their own T-X entry, a small, single-engine design that appears to be based on Northrop's T-38C trainer aircraft, which was widely successful.

Another entry into the T-X program is also expected, with the Sierra Nevada Corporation and Turkish Aerospace Industries also working on a brand-new aircraft. Their design is slightly different from the other two entries, relying on two smaller jet engines (like the type found in business jets) instead of the larger, more powerful powerplants found in the other two entries.

Finally, Lockheed-Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries will be proposing their KAI T-50, which first flew in 2002, as a contender in the T-X program. Although there will be modifications made to the T-50 (mostly avionics-based) by Lockheed, basing their aircraft on a proven design may give them an advantage over the competition.

The Competition Starts Next Year

The actual competition won't begin until the Air Force releases Request for Proposals (RFP). Once the RFPs are out, it will likely take about a year to choose a winner.

Once a winner is chosen, then the development of the aircraft can start in earnest, with production (probably at a reduced rate) beginning around 2022 and initial operating capability slated for 2024.