Boeing and Saab have signed an agreement to jointly develop and build an all-new aircraft for the U.S. Air Force's T-X trainer competition, aimed at a replacement for the service's 540-plus T-38 trainers. Boeing will be the prime contractor, but both companies will invest in the new aircraft, which will compete with three candidates based on non-U.S. off-the-shelf aircraft: the BAE Systems Hawk, offered by partner Northrop Grumman; the Alenia M-346, with General Dynamics as the prime; and the Korean Aerospace Industries T-50, proposed by development partner Lockheed Martin.

Although Boeing and Saab are giving no details of the design—which in any case is described as flexible, depending on an Air Force requirement that has yet to firm up—it will not be based on Saab's Gripen, beyond incorporating “some Gripen DNA,” an industry source says. This shows that the two companies expect to offer a smaller and cheaper aircraft than the Gripen-sized T-50.

On the other hand, Saab's expertise is in high-performance aircraft, pointing toward a fast and agile trainer that can produce pilots ready to handle complex fighters with no two-seat versions, like the F-22, F-35 and (so far) the JAS 39E.

Discussions between Saab and Boeing were reported in September but have been underway for “much longer,” a Saab source says. Saab's demonstrated capability in designing aircraft for flexible, affordable production is the key to the agreement, says an industry source. At the Paris air show in June, Saab President/CEO Hakan Bushke said the company had reduced production costs on the Gripen C/D even while slowing annual production to 8-12 units from 28, and that the larger JAS 39E would be cheaper still. “Bushke has made no secret of the fact that Saab is highly profitable at such rates,” says a Saab official.

The Boeing-Saab team does not expect to see a request for proposals before 2016 (with initial operational capability in 2023 or later), and the timing of the announcement was determined not by marketing but by Swedish financial reporting regulations, which require the disclosure of investment decisions that could have a major impact on the company. Boeing says there are no other team members.

Design for low production and support cost is intended to offset the advantage enjoyed by Boeing's competitors, which face only the development costs associated with customizing their designs to meet the U.S. requirement and modernizing them for a life extending well beyond 2050.

The three derivative contenders are widely different from one another, with close to a 3:1 difference in installed thrust. In the Pentagon's last trainer competition, the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (Jpats) in the mid-1990s, offerings also covered a wide range of cost and performance, but with an important difference: With seven contenders, there was competition at each level. (Jpats effectively became a choice between the two least costly candidates, the winning Beech-Pilatus PC-9 Mk. 2 and the Embraer Tucano.)

The big differences among the T-X contenders pose a problem for the Air Force in terms of writing a requirement, because certain key parameters (such as speed, acceleration or sustained g force) could exclude one or more contenders immediately if they were set at high levels, almost certainly resulting in protests.

But the wide range of offerings could also give Boeing an opportunity to position a clean-sheet contender with a different balance of cost, performance and design features than any of its competitors. One option would be to build a high-performance trainer around a non-afterburning version of the General Electric F414, which both Boeing and Saab use in their fighters.

Such an aircraft would have more thrust than the M-346 but a single, more modern engine, and could, like the Super Hornet and JAS 39E, take advantage of a GE-offered upgrade that would extend engine life and reduce fuel burn—major factors in life-cycle cost. (GE Aircraft Engines says that it is watching the Boeing-Saab effort but has not committed to it.)

Also, Boeing and Saab are developing new reconfigurable cockpit systems (for the F-15SA, Advanced Super Hornet and JAS 39E) using large-format, touchscreen, head-down screens and low-profile, digital, head-up displays. This work could read across directly to an all-new trainer.