Boeing Preparing Strategy For Future T-7 Variants


Credit: Boeing

DUBAI—Boeing plans to release a strategy soon for adapting the T-7A for new missions after the trainer jet enters full-rate production, but several changes—including a switch to a classified infrastructure—are needed for the Red Hawk to perform an emerging “surrogate” mission and become an operational fighter.

Following fresh comments by a U.S. Air Force official linking the T-7 to a possible future fighter mission, Boeing plans to release details of the company’s strategy in the first or second quarter of next year, Donn Yates, Boeing’s director of Air Force programs, told reporters on Nov. 15 during the Dubai Airshow here.

“What we think we’ll unveil to you is a new kind of outlook on what the T-7 will be as a system in the future,” Yates said.

An Air Force official reportedly said during an industry conference in early November in Madrid that a fighter variant of the T-7 is being studied as a replacement for pre-Block Lockheed Martin F-16s. The Air Force and Navy are also considering whether to acquire an advanced trainer jet to serve as a combat surrogate, with systems onboard that allow the aircraft to emulate the characteristics of a wide variety of friendly and hostile combat aircraft.

As the chosen successor of the Northrop T-38C Talon for the Air Force’s next advanced pilot trainer, the T-7 is a natural candidate for both roles.

But first Boeing will have to resolve the issues that have delayed the launch of low-rate initial production by two years to 2026. A new version of the T-7A egress system will be tested in 2024 to address concerns identified by the Air Force during sled testing completed in February 2022, Yates said. Operational testing reports also identified concerns over whether Boeing can achieve the Air Force’s industry-leading requirement for 8K visual resolution in the T-7A simulator. But Yates said the problem has been fixed after Boeing engineers changed the cables to increase the power supply to the displays.

Meanwhile, the Air Force, Navy and some foreign operators are identifying new roles for the single-engine jet. A so-called “F-7” is being considered to serve an operational role in the light fighter segment. Air Combat Command and Naval Air Systems Command have also sought options for an “advanced tactical trainer” or “tactical surrogate aircraft.” Inspired by the way Israel, Italy and Finland have equipped their jet trainers with advanced onboard emulators, the U.S. military is studying the possibility of equipping operational fighter squadrons with jets that can perform as surrogates for aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin F-35, that are more expensive to fly and maintain.

Meanwhile, Boeing also plans to offer a new version of the T-7 to serve as a replacement for the Navy’s T-45 Goshawk. The Undergraduate Jet Training System program has called for an aircraft that can withstand the force of thousands of simulated carrier landings on a normal runway.

At the same time, Air Education Training Command (AETC) ordered 351 T-7As in 2018, and urgently needs the aircraft to replace aging T-38s that are requiring increasing structural maintenance to keep in service. Yates said that Boeing’s manufacturing system for the T-7A—a full-scale determinate assembly process that requires no tooling jigs—can support a significant increase in the production rate to meet all of the potential new domestic and foreign demand.

“We can snap these together using digital engineering and we don’t have a lot of tooling, so we can increase capacity,” Yates said.

A production increase is not likely for at least a few years to accommodate any required modifications. AETC’s requirements called for an unclassified version of the T-7A. If the Red Hawk is chosen for the surrogate role, Boeing will need to convert the aircraft to handle classified flight information on real, operational aircraft that it would emulate, Yates said.

The conversion could take several years. Boeing has no plans to start building new versions until the original T-7A trainer reaches full-rate production, Yates said. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, AETC plans for the T-7A to achieve a peak production rate of deliveries annually in 2030.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.