BLOG: A next generation jet trainer?
14 Jun 11
As these words are written, the biannual planefest that is the Salon Le Bourget (or the Paris Air Show to the non-Francophone world) is just around the corner. What, one wonders, will be the headline news on the aerospace training front?
One piece of news circulating in the runup to the world’s aerospace manufacturing and service industry descending on Paris is the subject of the US Air Force replacement programme for the venerable T-38C Talon jet trainer. Dubbed T-X, the programme is obviously of sufficient size – the baseline requirement is for 350 aircraft but industry insiders expect it to grow to somewhere in the region of 500 once peripheral and other US government agency requirements are taken into account – to attract serious consideration from all the major manufacturers.
Leading the pack will undoubtedly be the ‘big three’ of the jet trainer world at the moment – BAE Systems with the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer, Alenia Aermacchi with the M-346 Master (which it will re-designate T-100 for the US requirement) and Korea Aerospace/Lockheed Martin with the T-50 Golden Eagle. And that, one might be forgiven for thinking, will be that – particularly in light of the fact that to date the US Air Force has been quite vociferous in saying “we do not want a developmental aircraft – we want an existing solution.”
Not a bit of it. Boeing has been equally vociferous in promoting its capacity to develop a next generation jet trainer aircraft to meet the bill – undoubtedly a costlier option, but one that speaks to the protectionist element as well as promising (so it is said by some) enhanced performance and utility over the aircraft’s likely service life.
Reports circulating recently indicate that Boeing may understand the requirement has been – or is about to be – delayed due to the budget pressures that even the US military is feeling the effects of. That understanding does not appear to be shared by the US Air Force, however, which is publicly maintaining its commitment to seeing the T-X achieve initial operating capability by 2017 – a timetable that must surely preclude developing a new airframe.
This is a debate that undoubtedly has a significant shelf life and we can expect argument and counter argument to rage, not only during next week’s gathering of the Great and the Good in Paris, but also for months and years to come.
But there is one not-so-subtle fact that seems to have escaped the notice of the protagonists of a new-build aircraft. Senior officials are on record as stating that the USAF requirement is “not just for an aircraft – it is an integrated training solution that we need – and that’s what we will procure.”
Yes – an airframer may well be able to bid its chosen aircraft into a solution as part of a consortium. But whoever the bidding integrators, or training service partners, turn out to be, which of them, I wonder, are going to be prepared to risk bidding a developmental aircraft into a programme of this magnitude and with this tight a timescale?
Success in the current state of the defence and aerospace industry depends largely on intelligent bid management and risk mitigation. How can the risk of a new airframe be factored in to this sort of programme? Are we seeing the beginning of another extended and potentially divisive programme evolving along a KC-X-like path? It is to be hoped not: the US Air Force training community deserves the solution it states it needs – not a solution that a third party (who will not necessarily have to live with the consequences) thinks it might derive benefit from.