T-7 aircraft T-1 and T-2 arch pass and fly-by. John Parker /Boeing
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Air Force Wants Up to 400 Advanced Fighter Trainers

Nov. 5, 2021

Red air operations and training are priorities for USAF in the coming decade.

The Air Force is seeking “at least 100” and as many as 400 Advanced Tactical Trainer aircraft to train fighter pilots and to serve as adversary aircraft in training, a role now filled by the AT-38.

While the Air Force seems likely to expand the role of the T-7A, the service did not mention either that airplane or its maker, Boeing, in its request for information (RFI), which was published Oct. 12.

The RFI is “very similar” to one issued by the Navy for jet trainer to replace the T-45. To “reduce the burden of crafting a response,” contractors can submit the same information as provided to the Navy, the service said. The Air Force is conducting market research to determine what options now available might match the requirement, but an Air Combat Command  (ACC) spokesperson said it is open to “any and all vendors that can meet the desired design.”

Responses are due by Nov. 23.

Air Force leaders have for several years suggested the T-7 Advanced Jet Trainer could be the basis of a companion trainer/aggressor aircraft in the mold of the T-38/AT-38, but the new jet must first pass muster as an advanced jet trainer before they’ll invest in adapting it to other roles. Former Air Combat Command Commander and retired Gen. James M. Holmes said he could envision the T-7 as the basis for a lower-cost, lightweight export fighter or a homeland defense platform. But for now, at least, the T-7 lacks external hardpoints for weapons and its aerial refueling system is optional.

The Air Force plans to buy 351 T-7A advanced trainers. The additional work could double that figure. Boeing has suggested a market opportunity for the T-7A and variants of at least 1,500 airplanes. The company partnered with Saab of Sweden to develop the aircraft, which it describes on its website as designed with “provisions for growth.” 

The runner-up in the T-X competition, the Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries T-50A, is another potential option. The companies jointly developed the T-50A as a derivative of their combat-capable F-50, which has been sold to the Philippines, Indonesia, Iraq, and Thailand. 

Air Combat Command in the past discussed buying or leasing T-50As or similar aircraft for its “Reforge” basic fighter trainer program, which remains in its infancy, in advance of the T-7As planned 2024 arrival in service; the T-7A isn’t expected to reach full operational capability until 2034, so the Air Force will continue to operate the T-38 in the interim.   

“The platform desired is one that will meet the Initial Tactical Training platform requirements within the Reforge [concept of operations],” an ACC spokesperson said. The Advanced Tactical Trainer could also potentially be used as “an Adversary Air platform and [have] potential for growth/adaptation as a tactical surrogate.” 

Air Force officials said a “tactical surrogate” could teach switchology and procedures to F-16 or F-35 pilots, for example, providing a less-costly aircraft in which the displays and possibly the controls and performance could be modified to simulate the actual combat fighters. The ACC spokesperson said timing for acquiring the new aircraft will depend on the responses to the request for information. 

Lockheed Martin’s T-50A, the company’s offering to the advanced pilot training competition, first flew in 2016. Matthew Short/Lockheed Martin

The RFI said the new trainer aircraft will be used for initial tactical training, “adversary air support,” and as a “tactical fighter surrogate of existing and future” Air Force front-line fighters. The Air Force wants “feasibility, estimated cost, and schedule for at least 100,” plus up to 200 more, in lots of 50. The service wants a two-seat airplane, with the option for a single-seat variant in which the rear seat area would house other mission gear. 

Requirements call for an airplane that can fly at Mach 0.9 and be able to “replicate current and future fighter aircraft systems” by providing an embedded training environment to build “transferable skills, systems management skills, and decision-making skills” for weapons employment. The jet is to have a large cockpit display and one hardpoint on each wing to carry at least one Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation pod or a Combat Air Training Missile. The hardpoints also have to be able to carry an external fuel tank or an electronic attack or countermeasures pod or “other future pods.” Endurance is to be 90 minutes, of which 30 minutes would be “tactical maneuvering.” The jet is to have a ceiling of at least 45,000 feet and have a structural instantaneous G of 7.5, plus a sustained 6G maneuver.

The controls must have a “universal stick and throttle connection” in order to be reconfigurable and “mimic Hands on Throttle and Stick of front-line” fighters. The jet is to have a “secure open architecture,” according to the RFI. 

The Air Force is “interested” in having the new jet support a helmet-mounted display system and in onboard power sufficient to power wing stations, electronic countermeasures pods, and an infrared sensor. It has a preference for an airplane with an automatic ground collision avoidance system (GCAS) and a zero-zero ejection seat, as well as an “engineering analysis or option” for aerial refueling and an infrared search and track system (IRST). 

To go with the jet, the Air Force wants a “smart chair” simulation-like device that can provide ground-based virtual reality flight practice. 

ACC put forward Reforge—short for “Rebuilding the Forge”—last year as the command’s plan to update fighter pilot training. Reforge would consolidate some phases of pilot training and shift some instruction to the undergraduate pilot phase. The goal is to cut the time needed to grow a flight lead—a fighter pilot who is qualified to lead a two-ship formation—by up to 18 months and shift some front-line fighters from training to combat status.

One way Reforge saves time is it reduces the number of change-of-station moves fighter pilots must make en-route to becoming qualified. That reduces lost momentum and the amount of relearning that has to take place. Drafts of the concept suggested that transitioning from instruction in the T-7A to a fighter-like variant would accelerate training even further.

The T-7A’s advanced capabilities helped inspire Reforge. The jet will be able to simulate many of the visuals and procedures a pilot would experience in a front-line fighter. Because it can do more than a T-38, Air Education and Training Command has said it does not plan to operate the T-7A just as it used the T-38. Neither ACC nor Air Education and Training Command have discussed whether they will develop a similar program for bomber pilots.