“Strictly Trainer” T-X Now a Candidate for Lead-in Fighter, Aggressor, Light Strike

A Boeing-Saab team won the T-X contest last September with a bid nearly $10 billion below what the Air Force pegged as the value of the work. Boeing photo.

After years of insisting the T-X competition was only meant to yield an advanced T-38 trainer replacement—and very explicitly not a future Aggressor or in other roles also filled by the T-38—the Air Force is now considering it for precisely those and other missions. The announcement comes just a few months after the T-X competition was won by the team of Boeing and Saab of Sweden.

“We worked hard on making requirements for the T-X that were focused on the training mission,” Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes told reporters at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. “We guarded that requirement because we wanted to hold the cost down and make it affordable and we wanted to stick with just that requirement.” Now that the requirement has been set, Holmes said his staff is looking at applying the T-X to other missions, such as “downloading” some training now done in fighters to the T-X, which has lower operating cost and performs better than the T-38 in some regimes.

“Now we can start talking about some other potential uses for the airframe,” he said. “You could imagine a version of the airplane equipped as a light fighter, … a version equipped as an adversary air training platform, and … maybe a little of all of that while you’re seasoning young fighter crews, as fast as you can, to address our shortage of experienced fighter pilots and WSOs,” or weapon systems officers, he said.

These aircraft would be in addition to the 350 or so T-X airplanes the Air Force plans to buy under a fixed-price contract from Boeing and Saab. The team won the T-X contest last September with a bid nearly $10 billion below what the Air Force pegged as the value of the work.

The T-38 also has been used as a companion trainer to complement expensive systems where pilots don’t get many actual flying hours—such as the B-2 bomber—but Holmes did not mention that mission.

“At the informal level, I have some guys working for me that are thinking through what the requirement might be,” he said. “When or if that transitions into becoming something more formal will depend on a lot of things,” such as “where the budget goes over the next few years.”

The T-X also might be used to fulfill the requirements of the light attack concept, which previously had been limited to turboprops but has recently been expanded to potentially include helicopters and remotely piloted aircraft, Holmes noted.

This last potential application would not be limited to the T-X, he pointed out, and USAF will consider “all the airplanes that competed in the T-X category,” or of “that size and cost per flying hour and capability.” This “is something I think we should definitely look at, as we look forward in the [light attack] experiment.” The Air Force has drawn “no conclusion” about a preferred approach, he said.

“One of the principal things we’re going to talk about in the light attack is how our partners feel about it. A lot of air forces would like to grow and be more effective against the threats they face, but can’t afford to operate an F-35 and maybe not even an F-16. What do we have that we can offer [that] … the partners [will] be interested in?”