After more than 50 years, the USAF's aging T-38 is finally getting a replacement.
On September 27, Boeing was announced as the winner of the T-X trainer competition. Being the only real clean sheet design entered, many saw it as Boeing's to lose.
Victory was no assured, however. Submitting a clean-sheet design was a risky proposition when it comes to affordability and risk. So much so that Northrop Grumman (maker of the T-38) abandoned the competition after going so far as to building a prototype.
As the competition came to a close, Boeing faced the Leonardo T-100 and Lockheed Martin/KAI T-50 Golden Eagle. Both of these aircraft had the advantage of being mature, proven designs. The T-50 had the extra advantage of being represented by the juggernaut that is Lockheed Martin. Without a Stateside sponsor, the T-100 was certainly a political dark horse.
While other designs, like the Textron AirLand Scorpion were submitted, none of them really had a chance going against America's largest defense contractors in such a high-stakes project. In the end, the T-X program became another chapter in the longstanding rivalry between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
What really stands out is how Boeing won.
Lockheed Martin played it safe submitting the T-50. This was prudent given its recent history. Both the F-22 and F-35 have seen spiraling costs and frustrating service delays. By presenting a tried-and-true design, they mitigated all risk and doubt. The T-50 is a said to be a fine aircraft and it would certainly be up to the role.
Boeing certainly could have gone a similar route, perhaps even backing Leonardo's T-100. Instead, they decided to swing for the fences. Pride was undoubtedly a factor, what with Boeing's (née McDonnell Douglas) history of of legendary fighters like the F-15, F-4, A-4, etc. With the days of the Super Hornet and Eagle numbered, Boeing was on a mission to prove that it could still design and build fighter-type aircraft.
The challenge here was not just designing a new jet trainer, but building one that stands out next to other designs with a clear head start. With cost being a major determining factor for the winning bid, simply throwing money at the project was not an option. Boeing needed to keep costs down while simultaneously meeting or exceeding requirements. This is not an easy task for a corporation used to the largesse typically afforded to members of the American Military Industrial Complex.
In a world where fighter development has become increasingly expensive, Saab has somehow managed to buck the trend. While other nations have resorted to multinational consortiums to develop new fighters, Sweden has remained fiercely independent. This has led to Saab becoming masters of designing cutting edge fighters on a shoestring budget.
Boeing wisely asked for Saab's help.
The resulting design was both new and familiar. Boeing/Saab's T-X resembles a shrunken down F/A-18 Hornet, with a few elements from the F-35 and T-38 thrown in. A single GE F404 engine provides power. With its large, stadium seating cockpit, there is no mistaking it for anything but a jet trainer. Or possibly a PIXAR character...
Unlike the other contenders, Boeing/Saab's entry was custom-built around the contract requirements. While the others may meet or exceed certain performance parameters, more mundane benchmarks like ease of maintenance and availability are just as important. These aircraft will be used and abused as pilots transition to high performance aircraft, hangar queens need not apply.
Not only did the Boeing/Saab collaboration meet or exceed the T-X program's selection criteria, it did so remarkably under budget. Boeing is promising to deliver 351 trainers for $9.2 billion. This is less than half the USAF's original cost estimate of $19.7 billion.
Winning the T-X competition is a huge win for Boeing. Ostensibly, the T-X was meant to replace the USAF's fleet of T-38 Talon trainers. In reality, the T-X will likely be much more. At the very least, expect to see them in Thunderbird colors. The USN will likely be steered towards the platform when the time comes. It will almost assuredly find international buyers looking to replace their jet trainers. It will also likely find itself being used for "aggressor" training.
Looking forward, it would seem like it is only a matter of time before the platform sees use a a light fighter as well. Why should it be different than any of the other aircraft in this segment (T-50/FA-50, T-38/F-5, etc)
The T-X result will prove to be a huge boost for Saab as well. Not only financially, but it cements their reputation of building affordable world-class aircraft. I doubt this will be their last partnership.
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Boeing recently took it on the chin with the whole Bombardier C-Series debacle. Attempting to bully the smaller aerospace firm backfired spectacularly, resulting in cancelled orders for Boeing Super Hornets, bad PR, and bolstering its biggest competitor.
The T-X is the opposite. By partnering with others to develop something new and innovative, instead of trying to squash their competition, Boeing has come out on top.
Funny how that works.