NG gives T-X preview

Model revealed to journalists ahead of rollout

Northrop Grumman has given journalists a sneak peek of a model of its new T-X trainer contender. The company is in a pack of OEMs vying for the lucrative USAF T-38 Talon replacement competition.

The manufacturer revealed the model off camera for only a few seconds, with reports suggesting the model bears a striking resemblance to its existing T-38.

It is expected that NG will roll out and start test flying its T-X contender aircraft early in 2016 at Mojave, California. BAE Systems is also heavily involved in the aircraft, embedding key mission training systems from its Hawk T2 Advanced Jet Trainer.

The US Air Force released its eagerly awaited formal requirements list for its T-38 Talon replacement program in March 2015, kickstarting the process that will lead to selection of a new fast-jet training aircraft. This is the last step before contractors will be invited to respond to a request for proposals (RFP) for the T-X competition — expected to be released in the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2016, with a contract award in the fall of 2017.

The USAF wants to buy 350 T-Xs to replace the 431 T-38s in Air Education and Training Command (AETC) with initial operational capability (IOC) currently slated for the end of 2023 in both the undergraduate pilot and introduction to fighter fundamentals (IFF) training roles. According to AETC, the period of operation for the T-X is 2026 to 2045, and the aircraft is set to fly 360 hours a year, at a mission readiness rate of at least 80 per cent.

The 1961-vintage T-38 has been a stalwart training aircraft and has been extensively upgraded with a partial ‘glass’ cockpit to help keep it relevant in the F-15 and F-16 era. The era of the F-35 and F-22, however, is not proving quite so forgiving for the Talon.

Officers say that 12 of the 18 advanced pilot training tasks that are prescribed cannot currently be completed in a T-38. This places the onus on operational conversion units to take up the slack — adding expensive flight hours in precious jets. The USAF is keenly aware for the need to ‘download’ some of this training to cheaper platforms — namely T-X — and the service thinks it could save 15 per cent in operating costs annually for advanced pilot training as this strategy becomes possible.

The key competitors rushed to offer off-the-shelf designs, with only Boeing saying that it was going to pitch a new ‘clean sheet’ design. However, as the performance requirements became clearer in 2015 it was obvious that many of the offerings wouldn’t make the cut.

Three significant performance characteristics stood out among over 100 points in the March 2015 requirements list for the T-X: a sustained turn rate of a minimum of 6.5g, simulator visual acuity and performance, plus aircraft sustainment. That minimum sustained G requirement of 6.5g and an objective of 7.5g immediately threw question marks over some of the significant platforms being offered for the competition. The G threshold was set at 6.5g but with an aspiration to hit 7.5g — this is considered sufficient to ensure students can operate at 9g in a front-line fighter.

Many speculated that Boeing’s clean sheet design would be prohibitively costly when having to factor design and development costs over an existing design. When the T-X program was first announced, the Air Force hinted to industry it was looking for an affordable, off-the-shelf system. However, Boeing stuck to its guns and remained confident with its strategy. Its teaming with Saab changed the game when it came to clean-sheet solutions for T-X. Saab has a strong track record of keeping development and flight-testing costs down, driving down production costs through smart new processes. It started to look like a clean-sheet design, built exactly to Air Force requirements, at an affordable price point, could be a way to win T-X — but the pressure would mount on the USAF to keep costs in check.

Indeed, now only one camp is offering an off-the-shelf solution.

Lockheed Martin remains faithful to Korea Aerospace Industries and the joint offering of the T-50. However, the company has stated that it could also offer a clean-sheet solution, but off the record LM says this is not likely.

Northrop Grumman had little choice but to ditch its Hawk bid in favor of another brand-new design. Company executives have said that decision was made after the service requirements became clear. Responding to questions, Northrop stated: ‘In 2011 we entered the fight with the Hawk and with an RFP schedule to be on the horizon in early 2012. We stood behind the Hawk as the best solution at the time. As the program moved to the right and the timeline grew, the Air Force requirements began to evolve and we gained greater insight into what capability was really needed for T-X. It became more and more clear to us that the Hawk was no longer the optimum solution in terms of requirements and affordability. We as a team made the decision to no longer offer the Hawk and to incorporate a new air vehicle into our T-X solution.’

While this came as a blow for BAE Systems and for the Hawk, it wasn’t all bad news. BAE Systems’ experience and capabilities in pilot training is seen by Northrop as crucial to its bid when it comes to embedded air vehicle training capability. The world-beating embedded synthetic training afforded by the Hawk AJT is viewed as being essential as Northrop develops its contribution for a T-X solution.

Northrop Grumman is progressing only with a clean-sheet solution, and not retaining an off-the-shelf proposal. ‘Divided tracks lead to divided focus, and our team is committed to offering one integrated family of systems solution that affordably meets the requirements of the Air Force’, the company stated.

Yet another new T-X design is likely to be rolled out by Textron AirLand, which is reported to be preparing a modified version of its Scorpion ISR aircraft.

The complete version of this feature appears in the US Air Force Air Power Yearbook 2016, now on sale as a special issue of Combat Aircraft.

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