With four contenders still in the running to build the U.S. Air Force’s T-38 follow-on advanced pilot jet trainer, the service is confident that the remaining competition will drive cost down to an affordable level, despite high design expectations. Alenia Aermacchi is hoping to find a new partner—likely Raytheon—after being dumped by former prime contractor General Dynamics in pitching a version of the M346. GD announced its pullout March 26. 

This leaves four other candidates, including new designs from Boeing/Saab and Northrop Grumman/BAE, as well as a modified Textron AirLand Scorpion and the Lockheed/Korea Aerospace Industries T-50, though it is unclear how much modification the latter aircraft will need until the final requirements are set. Industry sources suggest Lockheed is not interested in a new-build design.

The contenders have shifted substantially for the T-X program as the Air Force’s schedule repeatedly slipped. Alenia’s M346 design was earlier thought to be leading the pack, with what was then a BAE-led team with Northrop Grumman to propose a variant of the Hawk, as well as Lockheed/KAI’s plans to move forward with the T-50.

Once comprised of only foreign competitors, now Alenia’s strained bid for M346 is the only offshore design.

The stakes are high, as 350 jets are needed to replace the T-38. A potential derivative program could total another 200 aircraft if the Air Force opts for single-track pilot training, using the chosen platform for advanced pilot training as well as advanced skills work, says Brig. Gen. Dawn Dunlop, director of requirements, plans and programs for Air Education and Training Command (AETC). The service could also opt for a “red air” version of the T-X, but both the advanced pilot training requirement and red air options will be decided at a later date.

The Air Force’s delays to the so-called T-X were due to budget pressures, but also gave officials time to approach the requirements and procurement process differently, says Maj. Gen. Dwyer Dennis, director of global reach programs for the Air Force acquisition secretary. Typically, requirements are refined, validated and then handed off to procurement officials with little collaboration. With T-X, however, the teams were working together to weigh the cost of various requirements against the capability required, Dunlop and Dennis say. They also engaged industry early and often about the requirements and potential cost trades. Though not unprecedented, the generals say the level of interaction with industry was unusual and beneficial.

“It has informed us on the state of technology—what is reasonable and what are some of the cost drivers—and it informed industry on what we really need,” Dunlop says. As a more informed customer, these officials now feel confident moving forward with the thorny task of assessing how to score the forthcoming bids based on a set of threshold and objective requirements.

The Air Force has made some serious missteps in this area in the past decade, most notably in the botched attempts to buy a KC-135 refueler replacement and the troubled path to procure a combat search-and-rescue helicopter. 

Chief among the Air Force’s concerns now is keeping cost down, specifically life-cycle cost, Dennis says. At the program’s inception, former procurement chief David Van Buren was pushing low cost, and industry was more focused on containing the development and procurement price. Recent budget pressures have, however, convinced the service to focus more on operating cost containment for weapon systems, including the T-X.

The Air Force has a cost cap in mind for the system, but Dunlop declined to share it. T-X includes not only the aircraft but also ground-based training systems and academic aids. 

Likewise, these generals say the dialog has helped them to understand the cost impact of their requirements. For example, the service wants an aircraft availability of 80% for T-X, Dunlop says. The requirement for the T-38 is 75%; the fleet has not met that goal since 2011 and hovers below 60% now.

Feeding into aircraft availability, however, are a number of subordinate factors, each of which was reviewed for its cost implications. “We looked at each of the subordinate parameters that feed that aircraft availability to make sure that none of those were higher demands than were required that were cost drivers where we didn’t need them,” Dunlop says. “We actually adjusted two of those parameters down lower that were in excess of our 80% aircraft availability.”

One requirement that was adjusted based on industry input was for the cockpit’s large-area display. While AETC’s requirement is simply to ensure that the student pilot can handle tasks such as avionics management and sensor integration, industry proposed options that attempted to mirror the F-35’s display.

“Originally, their selling point was, ‘Look, it is the same as the F-35,’ and I said, ‘That is not important to me and my requirements.’ What is important for me is that it is low-cost and that it meets the advanced pilot trainer mission task of teaching avionics integration, sensor management, cockpit management, . . . not necessarily that it matches a fifth-gen capability,” Dunlop says. “Only through dialog and through their research did they come back and show us that it was a lower-cost solution that provided more adaptability for the long run.”

The sustained g requirement was likely behind General Dynamics’ decision to abandon the M346. With a threshold of 6.5g and an objective of 7.5g, the requirement proved thorny for the M346. That stipulation was driven by 18 months of interviews with instructor pilots and research, Dunlop says. “That was very specific, because based on our discussion with instructor pilots [and] mission experts that was the minimum g we could accept that would allow us to meet the mission tasks of advanced pilot training,” she says. Additionally, research found that 7.5g would be sufficient to ensure pilot students can operate at 9g, the upper extreme for most fighters. “If you can operate at 7.5gs, you can operate at 9gs,” she tells Aviation Week.

Though this requirement is rigorous, it allows for the kind of performance needed for future F-35, F-22 and Long-Range-Strike bomber pilots. It also allows for the kind of margin necessary for what could come in the future, Dunlop explains.

Once procured, Dunlop estimates—based on industry input and assessments of allied air force operations—the service could save 15% in the operating cost annually for advanced pilot training.. This is because its performance will reduce the need to use other platforms—such as the F-16 or F-15—to augment training for some skills. Fighters are much more costly to operate than the T-38 or than the T-X will be. Dunlop says avoiding that follow-on training could save $160-280 million annually. Training hours will still be flown on the primary aircraft—F-22, F-16, F-15 and, eventually, F-35. But those hours will be dedicated to much higher-end skills than now, ultimately producing savvier pilots, she adds.

The T-38 is unable to address 12 of 18 mission tasks needed today, Dunlop says. “Even if you gave me money to fix [these gaps], I can only fix one. And I can only fix one partially, and part of that is because I don’t have the size, weight, power, cooling and growth margin available,” she says. “I no longer teach what is known as air combat maneuvering in T-38s because it is so different than my fourth- or fifth-generation platforms today.”

The T-38 does not support any night-vision goggle training, which is handled in the formal units for fighter and bomber pilots. Formation flying outside of visual range—a tactic of fifth-generation flying enabled by covert data links—is not trained in the T-38 either. With T-X, AETC officials intend to incorporate actual or virtual data links to hone skills, say officials at the command’s plans, programs and requirements directorate. 

The T-38 also lacks the ability for training in the use of “J-series” weapons, such as the ubiquitous Joint Direct Attack Munitions enabled by laser-guidance or data links, they say. And it also falls short in training pilots for emergency procedures, which in fifth-generation aircraft are far more reliant on computer control than in the T-38. This work is transferred forward to the formal training units.

Dennis says the request for proposals is expected to be released in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2016, with a contract award in the fall of 2017. Initial operational capability is slated for 2023.