The U.S. Air Force has not announced when it will replace its T-38C fast jet trainer, but industry is already posturing for a competition that will likely result in insourcing manufacturing jobs, amid high U.S. unemployment.

With the three would-be competitors all proposing designs currently assembled on foreign soil, industry officials suggest that it is only a matter of time before these companies begin to make their case to U.S. lawmakers by touting their designs' contribution to employment in influential congressional districts. Jobs numbers or locations are not taken into account if the Air Force follows typical source-selection rules, but, as with the politically contentious KC-135 replacement duel between Boeing and EADS, the T-X teams are likely to jockey for position as the “most American” team, insourcing the most U.S.-based jobs.

BAE was the first of the likely competitors to hint at its plans when it announced last week that Northrop Grumman will be its U.S. manufacturing lead. Although the teammates are mum about where their Hawk-based aircraft would be built, Northrop has been hoping to secure work for its Lake Charles, La., plant. This facility was the site of modifications to ready Boeing 707s for the Joint Stars air-to-ground surveillance platform. It now houses depot activities that could wane in light of budget talks (see p. 30).

It is “not surprising” that Northrop and BAE are teamed,” says John Young, president of Alenia Aeronautica, which is eyeing an M-346-based proposal. “Northrop Grumman needed to fill Lake Charles.” An industry official says Young was in talks with Northrop as well.

Tom Vice, president of Northrop Grumman Technical Services, says it will lead Northrop's effort with experts from across the company.

Young, however, says he is “in no hurry to find a partner,” and that talks are ongoing with potential teammates. Alenia aims to find a U.S. prime contractor, though plans are not firm, CEO Giuseppe Giordo said during the Paris air show in June. “After seven years of operation in the U.S., we know the rules, we know the way to work, and we know how to promote the program.”

Partner candidates include Boeing, Raytheon and L-3 Communications. Boeing officials continue to hold out hope that the Air Force will scrap its stated plan of supporting a quick and inexpensive development effort and opt instead for a clean-sheet approach. This is unlikely, however, and the company is said to have the door open to a possible partnership with Alenia. The pair's last venture, to jointly push the C-27J in the U.S. market, ended due to unresolved issues over workshare.

Young says he believes Cecil Field in North Florida could be a potential manufacturing site. This location was chosen by the company for final assembly of the C-27J tactical airlifter, though that plan fell through when the Pentagon sliced its buy. However, Alenia also has ties to South Carolina, where Boeing, its 787 partner, has extensive manufacturing operations to build the commercial airliner.

Though the Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries team will stay intact for the T-50-based proposal, the team is likely to take on more U.S. supplier content and must also find an assembly location. The obvious choice for Lockheed would be to replicate the South Korea-based production line in Marietta, Ga. Though 33 C-130J tactical airlifters are built there per year, F-22 production will be winding down, leaving open capacity. This plant has enjoyed powerful backing from such defense heavy-hitters on Capitol Hill as Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

Mobile, Ala., is another option. EADS had been poised to develop its final assembly of A330-based tankers there until the company lost to Boeing's KC-46A.

However, it remains unclear when a competition could begin. The so-called T-X is under the fiscal microscope. Statements from Gen. Edward Rice, who oversees the Air Education and Training Command, hint at a delay. “We are not bounded by the aircraft running out of structural life,” Rice said. In 2009, the Air Force conducted an exhaustive review of the airframe and its systems to get a better idea of life-expectancy. “We are confident we can fly safely,” Rice said.

The T-38C, which is a lead-in trainer for fighter pilots, continues to operate without restrictions despite an average age of well more than 40 years.

The Air Force has a careful balancing act ahead, as officials weigh how late they can start a competition for the T-X and field a new aircraft against the pitfalls of continuing to maintain a fleet that is costing and more and more to operate. Additionally, a T-38 crash in 2008 raised concerns about operating the fleet well after its design life.

The Pentagon is conducting a Defense Acquisition Board meeting on the procurement strategy for the T-X Oct. 21, according to industry officials. This review will likely produce a schedule for the competition and contract award.