We finally know what all the contenders to replace the venerable T-38 Talon will look like.

After teasing us for months, Boeing finally unveiled its entry into the T-X competition with much pomp and fanfare.  This follows a less ceremonial unveiling of Northrop-Grumman's clean sheet design.  The two other contenders, proposed by Lockheed and Raytheon, are modifications to existing designs.

The goal of the T-X program is to provide a "lead in" jet trainer for high performance aircraft found in the USAF.  This includes (but is not limited to) aircraft like the F-22, F-35, and B-21.  As military aircraft become more advanced, there has emerged a need for a trainer that mirrors these advances.  The venerable T-38 is no longer a suitable aircraft for this, being a 50-year-old design.

The requirements for the T-X dictate an aerial refueling receptacle and give preference for high maneuverability.   The ability to make a sustained 6.5g turn is a requirement with 7.5g being the objective.  Contractors will be awarded credit for exceeding this requirement.  Entries will also have to provide modern sensor and cockpit capability as well as simulators.

With cost being a major factor in determining the winner, many of the contractors considered existing, proven designs.

Lockheed Martin/KAI T-50A
After receiving much criticism for its (seemingly never-ending) cost and development issues surrounding the F-35 and F-22, it is easy to understand why Lockheed Martin chose to base its entry on an existing design.

Lockheed Martin partnered up with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) to present a version of KAI's T-50 Golden Eagle trainer (which itself is derived from the F-16).  The T-50 is a proven design, already in use as both a trainer and as a light strike fighter.

For its entry into the T-X, the T-50 is fitted with a "humpback" that houses the refueling receptacle needed for the USAF's fleet of tankers.

Alenia Aermacchi M-346
For its entry into the T-X, Raytheon has teamed up with Italian aerospace company Alenia Aermacchi to offer a version of its M-346 Master trainer.  This aircraft was briefly codeveloped with famed Russian manufacturer Yakovlev, which went on to develop the similar Yak-130 "Mitten".

For its entry in the T-X program, the Master will be designated the T-100.

Like the T-50, the M-346 is already in use a trainer and a light strike fighter by several nations.

Unfortunately, the T-100 may be out of the running already.  In its current form, it cannot meet the USAF's sustained g requirement.

Northrop Grumman's T-X entry
It was likely that same sustained-g requirement that convinced Northrop-Grumman to shy away from its original strategy of partnering with BAE in offering an updated version of its Hawk.

Instead, Northrop-Grumman has developed a "clean sheet" design.  While this approach does offer considerably more cost and risk, it will result in an aircraft tailor-made to the desired specifications.

While Northrop-Grumman has not publicly unveiled its T-X entry, a prototype (designated Model 400) was recently spied in Mojave, California.  This prototype shows a clear family resemblance to previous Northrop designs like the T-38, F-5, and F-20.

With the T-38 still being flown for over 55 years in the USAF, Northrop is obviously adopting a strategy of:  "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Boeing's T-X entry.  
With F-15 Eagle sales winding down, and its St. Louis plant at risk of shutting down, Boeing is taking the T-X program seriously.  This could be Boeing's last chance at building fighter type aircraft.  With a history of designing and building such legends as the F-15 Eagle, F-4 Phantom II, A-4 Skyhawk, and countless others; this would be a shame.

In order to put its best foot forward for the T-X, Boeing partnered up with Saab in order to take advantage of Saab's experience in building high-performance single-engine fighters quickly and on budget.  While initial rumors speculated on simplified Gripen, like Northrop-Grumman, Boeing and Saab chose to go with a clean-sheet design.

At first glance, the Boeing/Saab TX contender is the most radical of the T-X entries.  Even still, the Boeing/Saab TX is still familiar.  Its high wings, canted twin-tails and leading-edge root extensions (LERX) evoke the F/A-18 family.  From the rear, the Saab/Boeing T-X's single engine nozzle could almost be mistaken for an unstealthy F-35's.  Even the landing gear looks eerily similar to that of an F-16's.

This familiarity may be the key to Boeing's success.  When the YF-22 Raptor beat the YF-23 Black Widow II in the USAF's ATF program, many assumed it was because the YF-22 looked like a stealthy F-15 Eagle.  This carries over the the JSF competition when the (mini-Raptor) X-35 won over the radically shaped (to be nice) X-32.

The twin-tail design goes beyond aesthetics however.  By adopting a similar planform as the F-22 and F-35, the Boeing/Saab T-X will adopt similar handling characteristics.  Not only that, but twin-tail designs offer easier and safer air-to-air refueling with retractable boom tankers.

While the T-X program is a major USAF acquisition program with roughly 350 aircraft expected to be ordered, the stakes are likely much higher.

The winner of the USAF's T-X program will likely go on to garner further sales both with the USN and the international market.  The T-X winner is also likely to see use as a light fighter for those nations with smaller defence budgets or as a supplement to more expensive fighter types.

Most importantly for Canadians, the T-X could end up in the RCAF inventory.  With programmes in place to replace both the BAE Hawk and CT-114 Tutor, there is even a chance the T-X could soon be seen in Snowbird livery.

The T-X remains one to watch.


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