Northrop’s venerable T-38 Talon supersonic trainer entered service with the U.S. Air Force in March 1961 and has provided the advanced portion of the service’s training syllabus ever since. Over 1,100 were delivered and more than 450 remain in service.
The T-38C avionics upgrade program was begun in 2001 and, combined with the Pacer Classic structural and systems overhaul program, was intended to see the Talon through to at least 2020. However, a fatal accident two years ago was the catalyst for a plan to accelerate the T-38’s replacement, with a new planned in-service date of 2017.
That date would suggest the award of a system design and development contract in 2013, and the world’s trainer manufacturers are working hard to come up with attractive proposals. In today’s climate all competitions are worth fighting for, but it is the sheer scale of this one that is remarkable. The U.S. Air Force has outlined an initial requirement for around 350 aircraft, but this is likely to grow considerably and may also involve light-attack and carrier-capable versions. As with most U.S. programs, the export spin-off potential is also huge.
Studying the T-X
For some time the USAF has been working on studies for what it calls the T-X, and a request for information was issued in March 2009. On the face of it, the obvious T-X candidates are the trio that have battled over most recent advanced trainer competitions: the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master, BAE Systems Hawk and Korean Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50 Golden Eagle. All three are built overseas, but the establishment of production lines in the U.S. and incorporation of a large degree of domestic content would overcome many of the political challenges.
Given the potential scale of the T-X it seems likely that the prime contractor would be a major U.S. company. In the case of the T-50 it would be unthinkable that Lockheed Martin would not throw its weight behind what is, after all, partly its own product. Italy’s Aermacchi, through its Alenia North America arm, and the UK contender, through U.S.-based BAE Systems Inc., could feel they have enough of a domestic footprint to go it alone, but would more likely team up with a U.S. major. In May Alenia rebranded the M-346 as the T-100 Integrated Training System for the U.S. market.
The big U.S. companies have yet to show their hands, raising some interesting questions about the T-X. Boeing, in particular, is weighing a number of options. Via the merger with McDonnell Douglas it inherited and has perpetuated a close relationship with BAE Systems through the Harrier and T-45 Goshawk programs. The latter, in particular, would appear to make BAE the most obvious partner. However, in May 2008 Boeing signed an agreement to jointly market the Aermacchi M-346 (and M-311) in non-U.S. markets. At the same time, Boeing has not ruled out a new, all-American design.
Although the T-38 line ended in 1972, Northrop Grumman is the incumbent advanced trainer manufacturer and could enter the fray with a new design. Perhaps a more likely offering would be a radical modernization program for the T-38 itself, with considerable cost savings compared to new procurement.
To meet the 2017 schedule, the Pentagon must allocate some T-X funding in the next budget, the request for which is due in February. If it is approved, a request for proposals would most likely be issued soon after.
At present the USAF is studying only the training element of the T-X, but there are obvious opportunities for light-attack capability. For the training role the aircraft would prepare pilots for the F-22 and F-35, and by definition would need an advanced cockpit with mission management capability. The supersonic capability provided currently by the T-38 is rarely used and is probably an expensive luxury. Similarly, radar and weapon systems can be emulated satisfactorily in the modern decoupled cockpits of the three main T-X candidates.
While the T-X is an Air Force program, the U.S. Navy is keeping a close watch as it may join at a later date to satisfy a long-term requirement for a T-45 replacement. The ability of the T-X aircraft to be carrier-compatible is not being considered initially, but may become factor at a later stage. Alternatively, the U.S. Navy may plow its own furrow going forward, perhaps proceeding with the proposed T-45D Goshawk, a much-improved version of the current trainer.