Monday, February 23, 2015

T-X gets more interesting...

T-38 in "Aggressor" paint.
The USAF has yet to declare an open competition to replace its venerable T-38 Talon trainer.  Despite this all signs point to this one as "one-to-watch".  Competitors would very much like to prove that they still have the chops to build a fighter-type aircraft.  At its current pace, this could very well turn into another "Battle of the X-Planes".

As the USAF finalizes the capabilities it wants for the T-X, more manufacturers are deciding to forego license-building proven designs and will offer "clean sheet" designs instead.

Boeing, which has partnered up with Swedish-based Saab, was the first to do this.  This despite the initial rumors of a "downgraded" Gripen being used as the basis.

Northrop Grumman, soon after taking the lead over from its partner, BAE, has decided that it will also develop a clean sheet design instead of offering a version of BAE's Hawk.  While some were rather surprised by this announcement, one has to wonder what chances Northrop Grumman/BAE really had with the 40-year-old Hawk.

KAI's T-50 Golden Eagle
Not to be outdone, Lockheed Martin has now admitted that their famous "Skunk Works" branch has been working on a clean sheet T-X design since 2010.  This, despite pairing up with South Korean based KAI in offering the T-50 Golden Hawk.

Lockheed Martin will wait until the actual statement of requirements are released before it puts forward one design or the other.  Undoubtedly, there is pressure to keep with the T-50 design after S. Korea has ordered 40 F-35 Lightning IIs.

General Dynamics is still offering up a version of the Alenia Aermaccchi M-346 Master.  Given that the M-346 is based on the Russian Yakovlev Yak-130, it may not be the most palatable option.  It also lacks the sheer lobbying power of its competitors.

Textron AirLand Scorpion
Textron Airland LLC certainly stands out as the competition's "dark horse".  Its AirLand Scorpion could make an appearance, possibly after an engine and wing swap.

The big unknown so far is what the requirements will actually be.  While the program is intended to procure only 350 aircraft, their is potential for a lot more.  Foreign sales are almost a certainty, and there is certainly a need for an aircraft to provide an "aggressor role" for the USAF's fighter aircraft.

While the USAF pursues mega-buck aircraft like the JSF, there is still a market for lightweight, low-cost fighters.  Friendly nations that do not have the funds (or the security clearance) to buy high-end fighter aircraft still need an option.  Do not forget that the T-38's sibling, the F-5 Freedom Fighter, was meant to be just that.

With Saab/Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and possibly even Lockheed Martin going forth with clean sheet designs, there could very well be more to the T-X than a simple trainer.


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