The U.S. Air Force’s T-X advanced trainer procurement program is the second largest outstanding undetermined aircraft procurement program in the world (after the Long Range Strike-Bomber, or LRS-B). It aims to procure 350 jets to replace the USAF T-38 fleet, plus possibly hundreds more for other customers and applications.

T-X is also basically a series of impossibilities. Whether it’s the budget, the emergence of clean-sheet proposals and the proliferation of players, or the shifting requirements, pretty much everything about this program makes analysts and observers throw up their hands in despair.

Funding T-X is the biggest apparent impossibility. The Air Force has made its top three objectives clear: F-35A, LRS-B and Boeing’s KC-46 tanker. The procurement budget topline is not likely to grow in real terms, and sequestration could make things worse. These three programs present huge challenges of their own, even before lower priorities such as T-X or the new Combat Rescue Helicopter are funded. 

On the other hand, it’s impossible to not proceed with T-X. Replacing the T-38 (see photo) would seem to be a necessary and time-urgent requirement. This fleet is about 50 years old on average, and by the time the winning T-X candidate enters service, at least another eight years will have passed. In fiscal 2014, T-38 mission-capable rates fell below 60%. Since the two latest Air Force fighters (F-22A and F-35A) are not built as two-seat trainer B-models, the strain on the fast-trainer fleet is only growing worse.

What makes T-X cancellation or long-term deferral impossible, however, is the T-38 fleet’s growing need. In the early 2020s, the T-38 fleet’s age will be severe enough to require a difficult choice: replacement or a much greater sustainment bill due to aging components and structural replacement needs. Either way, the Air Force will need to find the cash.

T-X requirements are another problem. Right now, it is impossible to determine the ideal T-X trainer, because the requirements have shifted. In February, more stringent sustained-G, turn and other requirements convinced Northrop Grumman to abandon its proposal, based on BAE’s Hawk, and to go with a clean-sheet design. Also this year the Air Force began talking about the option of using T-X as a “Red Air” adversary trainer, with additional features. There have been rumors of an export combat version, too.

Just last year, Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346, offered as the T-100, appeared to have the best chance of all the candidates. But in February, General Dynamics backed out of its plan to serve as T-100 prime contractor, probably since shifting T-X requirements made the design less than optimal. This leaves Alenia with the unenviable choice of either finding a new U.S. partner or pursuing a U.S. defense contract as a foreign prime.

The biggest T-X impossibility of all, it would seem, would be to get companies to invest their own money in a clean-sheet design. In addition to budget risk, changing program requirements make it tough to get the product right. A difficult budget environment will make it unlikely that the service can help much with nonrecurring costs. Also, the history of company-funded aircraft is dismal, at best.

The last two big military trainer competitions included clean-sheet proposals that were quickly eliminated. The Air Force/Navy Joint Primary Aircraft Training System saw a Cessna proposal for a (nearly) clean-sheet trainer based on its CitationJet business aircraft, which was quickly beaten by Raytheon’s adaptation of Pilatus’s PC-9 turboprop. The Navy’s VXTS carrier trainer program was won by BAE’s Hawk, which was offered in a navalized form by McDonnell Douglas. Many clean-sheet designs lost, including proposals from Rockwell, Northrop/Vought and Grumman/Beech.

Yet at this point there are at least three clean-sheet T-X proposals: Northrop Grumman’s, Boeing’s (in conjunction with Saab) and one from Textron Airland, which is considering a new version of its Scorpion light-attack jet. Even Lockheed Martin, which would seem to have a strong position with the supersonic T-50 (in conjunction with Korea Aerospace Industries), this year said that it is looking at a clean-sheet T-X design in case the Air Force wants something different.

There are now five likely or definite T-X bidders, and possibly others. So the odds of winning T-X are neither impossible nor great. Assuming the T-50 now has the best chance, the remaining four bidders share whatever hope remains. These low odds would also seem to discourage clean-sheet T-X proposals.

Yet just as the Air Force needs to make the impossible happen with T-X, the contractors need to ignore the near-impossible odds and aggressively pursue this program. There are few other new aircraft competitions out there.

And consider T-X’s importance relative to the broader high-end jet trainer market. Over the past 20 years (1995-2014), just 760 Western high-end jet trainers have been delivered worldwide, a number divided among six different models. T-X procurement, plus additional requirements and exports, will almost certainly result in 500 aircraft being built over the next 20 years or so.

In other words, for any major U.S.  airframer and anyone else building a trainer in this class, it is impossible to not compete for this requirement.


Richard Aboulafia is vice president of analysis at Teal Group. He is based in Washington.