Finding the X-Factor

The Boeing/Saab T-X platform built at St Louis is a clean-sheet design leveraging technologies from the F/A-18C/D and JAS-39E. (Boeing)

In a recent assessment of the global market for trainer aircraft, the Teal Group, a consultancy based in Fairfax, Virginia, anticipates a global market for 2737 trainer aircraft, worth $32.3 billion over the next decade.

The group’s assessment is a major increase from the period of 2006 to 2015 when 1876 trainer aircraft were acquired by air forces worldwide, for a total amount of $19.9 billion. A major factor in the Teal Group’s projected increase in trainer sales is the upcoming United States Air Force (USAF) T-X Advanced Pilot Training competition for which it is scheduled to release a final Request for Proposals (RFP) in December 2016. The USAF anticipates awarding a contract in 2017, with an Initial Operating Capability (IOC) planned for 2024.

The T-X Programme to replace the USAF’s ageing North American/Northrop Grumman T-38A/C Talon jet trainers more than 500 aircraft, is one of the major USAF procurement programmes of the decade, along with the Lockheed Martin F-35A/B/C Lightning-II fighter and Boeing KC-46A tanker; and the most important ongoing competition in the trainer market. Although an initial 350 aircraft are expected to be ordered to replace the T-38A/C, further purchases are possible. The T-X competition, with an estimated value of $11 billion, has attracted four manufacturers to submit both off-the-shelf developments of existing aircraft and clean-sheet designs.

In this regard, Raytheon and Leonardo-Alenia Aermacchi propose the T-100 based on the M-346 Master while Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) are submitting the T-50A based on the KAI Golden Eagle. Northrop Grumman initially planned to submit a proposal based on BAE Systems’ Hawk trainer family, but changed to a new design, built by its subsidiary Scaled Composite. Meanwhile, Boeing has partnered with the Saab Group to also offer a new clean-sheet design.


The T-X requirements are stringent and will be a challenge to all the competitors. In July the USAF released a version of the full RFP after issuing several iterations of the requirements for industry review and comment. That document identified three key performance characteristics for the new aircraft: sustained ‘g’; simulator visual acuity and performance, and aircraft sustainment. The sustained g requirement is to perform a specific manoeuvre in which a minimum of 6.5g is sustained through a 140-degree turn. The USAF is requiring a minimum of 6.5g sustained through the turn, with at least 80 percent fuel in the tanks at 15000 feet/ft (4570 metres/m) altitude, and a desired objective requirement of 7.5g. The manoeuvre should start at 15000ft and finish no lower than 13000ft (3960m) while losing no more than ten percent of its initial speed. The USAF is now incentivising industry to exceed the threshold requirements for specific performance aspects, including high-g manoeuvring, high angle-of-attack manoeuvring and aerial refueling. For the crucial g-capability requirement, for every 0.1g above the 6.5g threshold, and up to the 7.5g objective, a competing manufacturer will receive a bonus. If two or more T-X proposals are the same price, the proposal with the higher sustained-g capability will be rated higher overall.

Other T-X requirements include in-flight refuelling from both hose and boom systems and a ten percent reduction in fuel usage compared to the T-38A/C. The T-X should have a takeoff distance no greater than 6400ft (1950m) using an 8000ft (2438m) runway and a landing ground roll distance of no greater than 7000ft (2134m) on an 8000ft (2438m) runway with a ten-knot (1.9 kilometre-per-hour) tailwind. Each airframe must be able to operate for 8000 flight hours, while the fleet should be designed for 22 years of service life assuming a maximum utilisation rate of 30.3 hours-per-month and required aircraft availability will be at least 80 percent.


Raytheon, which replaced General Dynamics, which withdrew from the T-X programme in March 2015, as the prime contractor for the T-100, while Leonardo will provide the aircraft platform; the Alenia Aermacchi M-346A Master turbofan trainer, and Honeywell Aerospace the twin F124 low-bypass turbofan engines. CAE was initially part of the General Dynamics-led T-100 offering as the Ground-Based Training System (GBTS) provider, and continued in the team when Raytheon took over. For the T-X programme, the GBTS would consist of weapon systems trainers, operational flight trainers, unit training devices, aircrew ground egress trainers, ejection seat trainers, plus part-task and desktop trainers. CAE plans to leverage the design and development already done for M-346 GBTSs delivered to Italy, Israel, Poland and Singapore. One of the key advantages of the T-100 aircraft and the GBTS is that as a derivative of the M-346A, it is a proven, low-risk integrated training solution

Raytheon and Leonardo have proposed the T-100 based on the M-346 Master for the USAF T-X competition to replace the T-38A/C Talon. (David Oliver)

Although the T-100 is not supersonic, Raytheon officials believe they have covered the key performance parameters stipulated by the USAF, including high-g manoeuvring and high angle-of-attack manoeuvring. The Air Force has also requested the accommodation of boom-based Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR), meaning this would have to be accommodated on the T-100 in addition to the M-346’s standard probe-and-drogue system. According to Rick Yuse, president of Raytheon’s space and airborne systems division, if selected, the T-100 will be built and tested at Meridan, Mississippi in the United States.


Based on the proven KAI TA-50 Golden Eagle jet trainer, which is service with the Indonesian Air Force to replace its Northrop Grumman F-5E fighters, as well at those of the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), the T-50A offering is powered by a single General Electric F404 turbofan with afterburning, the T-50A is the only off-the-shelf supersonic design that, according to the team, can fulfill, or exceed, all the high performance requirements of the draft RFP. The modified T-50A aircraft features an optional dorsal AAR capability, a larger cockpit display that can feature Lockheed Martin F-16A/B/C Fighting Falcon fighter family or F-35A/B/C-style displays, updated training software and embedded sensor training. Lockheed Martin’s facility in South Carolina is where the T-50A’s final assembly will take place and will house the GBTS. Two aircraft have already been built, and the first has completed all of its subsonic testing, stability and control testing and ground testing. Avionics testing is being conducted on the second aircraft to ensure the new cockpit’s functionality. The Lockheed Martin GBTS contains an array of innovative technologies to provide options for offloading aircraft training tasks into the simulation.

Based on the proven KAI T/A-50 Golden Eagle advanced jet trainer, the Lockheed Martin/Korean Aerospace Industries T-X competitor is the T-50A; two of which have been assembled in the United States. (Lockheed Martin)


Unlike the T-50A, the T-100 and the other T-X candidate aircraft discussed in this article, the T-38A/C Talon first flew in 1959, and it has been in USAF service for more than 50 years with 1187 built. The Northrop Grumman-led T-X coalition includes BAE Systems and L-3 which are offering a clean-sheet design. The Northrop Grumman T-X Model-400 prototype recently seen during taxi trials at Mojave Air and Space Port in California was manufactured by Northrop Grumman subsidiary Scaled Composites, which has a history of producing experimental designs. The date of the Model-400’s first flight is yet to be announced. The Model-400 is powered by a single General Electric F404-GE-102D turbofan and shares a number of similarities with the T-38A/C, and Northrop’s F-5 fighter family with a long slender fuselage, twin engine inlets and a large vertical tail.


The Boeing/Saab T-X offering is focused on an all-new advanced pilot training system designed specifically for the USAF that includes trainer aircraft and a GBTS designed together from the ground up.

The first two Boeing/Saab T-Xs already built at St Louis, Missouri, are production aircraft, not prototypes. The new flexible design meets all the USAF requirements and can evolve as technologies, missions and training needs change. The aircraft is also powered by a single General Electric GE-F404 afterburning turbofan giving it high g and high angle-of-attack capabilities to mimic flight in modern fighter aircraft, with twin tails, ‘stadium’ seating (the aft seat higher than the front seat) and an advanced cockpit with embedded training. The T-X design incorporates technologies found in Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as well as Saab’s JAS-39C/D/E Gripen fighter. The first flight will take place before the end of this year.

Saab’s Eddy del la Motto, the deputy T-X programme manager told Armada that Saab and Boeing have been working together for years regarding the T-X programme. Talks about teaming for the upcoming T-X initiative began in 2011 and an agreement was reached in 2013. Mr. de la Motta said: “with Saab’s long experience of designing and building single-engine fighter aircraft we formed a joint management team in St Louis and set out to design an advanced training system with a clean-sheet design. Saab is responsible for building the aft fuselage built at Linkoping in (southern) Sweden.”

The Boeing/Saab T-X platform built at St Louis is a clean-sheet design leveraging technologies from the F/A-18C/D and JAS-39E. (Boeing)

Target Europe

Boeing’s teaming with Saab and Raytheon’s with Leonardo are both clear signs that the manufacturers involved in the jet trainer aircraft market are focusing on lower development costs, and targeting both T-X and worldwide export contracts. Whichever aircraft is selected for the T-X requirement, variants of it could also perform Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), light attack and close air support (CAS) missions, opening new capabilities for potential foreign customers. The T-X contract will also provide the winning team an inside track to any number of international customers that have acquired the F-35A/B/C, particularly in Europe.

There are currently more than 1200 trainer aircraft in European air force inventories; several hundred of which will be due for replacement in the next decade. These include several European F-35A/B/C customers. The Aeronautica Militare (AM/Italian Air force) is already taking delivery of the Alenia Aermacchi T-346 Master as its lead-in fighter trainer for both the F-35A and Eurofighter Typhoon-F-2000A fighter aircraft, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) will use the BAE Systems Hawk T.2 to form the advanced jet trainer segment of the UK Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS) to train Eurofighter Typhoon-F/GR4A and F-35B pilots. The AM, Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and the RAF all have two-seat Typhoon variants in their fleets.

Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have selected the F-35A to replace their F-16 family fleets, and all three will have to re-organise their advanced pilot training programmes, as there are no two-seat variants of the F-35A. Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF), Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) and Royal Netherland Air Force (RNAF) pilots currently receive advanced flight training in the United States with the Euro–NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) programme at Sheppard airbase in Texas using the Northrop Grumman AT-38B Talon. The RNAF F-16 MLU Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) with two-seat F-16Bs is actually based at Tucson Air National Guard Base (ANGB) in Arizona. It is unclear if the ENJJPT, that also trains Luftwaffe pilots, will continue if it replaces its AT-38Bs with the T-X winner or if and when the RNAF’s F-16 MLU FTS will be closed. An Advanced European Jet Pilot Training (AEJPT) programme has been under discussion for many years but faced with a shortfall of advanced flight training for European air forces in the United States, it may become close to reality possibly using the T-X winner procured from the United States?

Two of the biggest prizes for a new-generation advanced jet trainer will emanate from Turkey and France. Not only does the Turkish Air Force operate a fleet of more than 60 T-38Ms and F-5Bs but it also sends up to six pilots a year to the ENJJPT programme at Sheppard airbase. The F-5Bs are being upgraded to the T-38M standard by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) to include the introduction of Hands-On-Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) controls, and the capability of simulating weapons stores. The last T-38M will be delivered in 2017 and the upgrade programme will extend the aircraft’s service life until 2030, nearly 70 years since the type first entered service with USAF.

A student pilot assigned to the ENJJPT programme takes off at sunrise for a training sortie in a T-38A/C at Sheppard airbase. (USAF)

France is looking at the T-X programme with interest as it will soon have to make a decision for the Armeé de l’Air (ADLA/French Air Force) light trainer replacement for its venerable Dassualt/Dornier Alpha Jet-E jet trainer fleet under ‘Project Cognac.’ Entering service in 1978, a total of 447 Alpha Jets of various versions were produced and some 80 remain in the ADLA inventory. Even if the Raytheon/Leonardo T-100 fails to win the T-X competition, Leonardo is expected to offer an advanced trainer/light attack variant of the M-346 for Project Cognac. The M-346FT, launched at the 2016 Farnborough airshow in southern England, has a multi-role capability that integrates a wide range of systems and sensors for tactical support and air defence.

T-X aircraft
The winning T-X aircraft will be in a prime position to replace more than 100 ageing Alpha Jet family trainers operated by the French, Belgian and Portuguese air forces. (David Oliver)

Other European nations on the brink of replacing their air forces’ current trainer fleets include Sweden and Austria; both of which operate versions of the Saab 105 jet trainer. This aircraft has been in service nearly as long as the T-38 family having entered service with the Royal Swedish Air force in 1966. Both Austria and Sweden plan to replace the trainer by 2020. In recent interview General Mats Helgesson, chief of the Royal Swedish Air Force, told Armada: “We will retain flight training in Sweden and our options are open. It could be an advanced turboprop or even the T-X trainer.” Europe is set to be a major sector in the Teal Group’s assessment of the future trainer market, and the T-X programme could have a game-changing influence on that market.

Leonardo M-346FT
Another contender for European advanced jet trainer/light attack aircraft replacements will be the recently launched Leonardo M-346FT. (Leonardo)