By James Drew, Aviation Week & Space Technology
September 14, 2017 -- The U.S. Air Force’s hunt for a next-generation military trainer aircraft is seemingly a cost shootout between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, with Leonardo DRS as the underdog. But as the government reviews industry submissions for the T-X Advanced Pilot Training program and scrolls through hard drives full of flight data ahead of a down-select this fall, Leonardo DRS CEO Bill Lynn is confident his company’s M-346 Master-based T-100 proposal is a solid contender with every chance of victory.
The pending contract to replace the 1950s-era Northrop T-38 is valued at $16.3 billion for 350 aircraft. Lynn’s T-X team has the full support of Leonardo’s leadership group in Rome, especially since victory in the U.S. would be a boon for global sales of the M-346, particularly among Lockheed F-35 operators.
“Who Will Triumph?”
Leonardo DRS feels more confident for T-X without Raytheon. Sierra Nevada/Turkish Aerospace Industries Freedom Trainer won’t be considered for T-X without flying prototype. Boeing expects quicker T-X development program with two jets already built
“The history of predicting who is going to win these major competitions is poor; neither the tanker nor bomber competitions came out as many had predicted,” Lynn tells Aviation Week ahead of the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in Washington. “The fact is, we have a proven trainer. We’re the only ones already training F-35 pilots,” he points out.
The aircraft has already beaten Lockheed’s South Korean-built T-50 in a number of international contests, and it remains to be seen how the government rates the Boeing-Saab BTX clean-sheet combat trainer. Lynn disputes assertions by analysts and pundits that the T-100 is at a disadvantage compared to Boeing’s and Lockheed’s offerings. He also expects the T-100 to be very cost-competitive without the added overhead of a large U.S. teammate, like Raytheon.
Leonardo DRS is the U.S.-registered subsidiary of Leonardo and was essentially the fallback option for Leonardo Aircraft after it and Raytheon split in January.
“The current structure we have of Leonardo DRS with Leonardo Aircraft gives us the leanest cost structure we can have; and price is an important criterion,” Lynn says. “The corporate leadership in Rome is completely behind this bid. They see this as a very significant opportunity.” Lynn does not anticipate Leonardo DRS’s Italian heritage will be a hindrance.
If selected, final assembly and checkout will take place at a purpose-built facility at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. Partner Honeywell will resume production of the M-346’s F124 turbofan engine in Phoenix, and CAE will produce the ground training system in Florida.
“This is going to be an American worker-built product,” Lynn says. “We’re going to be employing a lot of Americans.”
The competition is a three-way race among Boeing-Saab, Lockheed-Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Leonardo DRS. Lockheed has been touting the T-50 as a ready-made, non-developmental solution for T-X. Two aircraft have been brought over from South Korea for flight demonstrations, and a final assembly line would be set up in Greenville, SouthCarolina.
Boeing says it can still hit the Air Force’s key acquisition milestones without delay, despite offering a clean-sheet aircraft that requires some development. Two BTX aircraft have been flying under experimental licenses from Boeing’s fighter line in St. Louis, where the trainer would be built.
Boeing T-X Program Manager Ted Torgerson noted during a media tour in May that it took three years from signing the teaming agreement with Saab to first flight. The two aircraft already delivered will count as the first two engineering and manufacturing development units.
“We built two [aircraft] because we wanted to prove we weren’t just a demonstrator,” Torgerson says. Northrop Grumman pulled out of the contest in February, leaving long-time teammates BAE Systems and L3
Technologies without partners. Northrop had spent years and untold sums of money developing the Scaled Composites Model 400 for T-X in secret after ditching an earlier plan to offer the BAE Systems Hawk.
Latecomers Sierra Nevada Corp. and Stavatti Aerospace might have submitted proposals, but probably will not be considered because they do not already have flying prototypes. Boeing, Lockheed and Leonardo DSR submitted their flight data to the Air Force by the June cutoff date.
Sierra Nevada revealed its dual Williams FJ44-powered lightweight trainer to Aviation Week in December 2016. But it still will not confirm if it submitted a proposal for T-X.
The company did display an artist’s rendering of the “Freedom Trainer” at the Paris Air Show in June. Sierra Nevada will also display a scale model at the upcoming Air, Space & Cyber Conference but has not scheduled any T-X presentations for the media.
The company has been developing the trainer alongside Turkish Aerospace Industries under Freedom Aircraft Ventures, headquartered in Centennial, Colorado. Sierra Nevada, a self-proclaimed “disruptive innovator,” is developing a flying prototype, but it has always intended
Freedom Trainer for the larger foreign military market, not just T-X, eyeing a forecast demand of 1,200 jets.
“The 800-lb. gorilla in the room is T-X, because it shapes everything,” a Sierra Nevada official said late last year. “It’s not about T-X, per se. We’re looking at an International Advanced Trainer.”
Stavatti Aerospace CEO Chris Beskar says Stavatti did submit the “Javelin T-X” design, but the proposal is not eligible for an award without corresponding flight data. Stavatti obtained the rights to the former Aviation
Technology Group’s Javelin aircraft design and one disassembled prototype through an agreement with Rud Aero in Florida.
Beskar says the original Javelin aircraft that first flew in 2005 is not suitable for T-X and has been redesignedaround a single Honeywell F125 afterburning turbofan engine.
He hopes to eventually develop the Javelin T-X into a potential replacement for aging Northrop F-5, T-38 and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 fleets.