The Buzz

$16 Billion U.S. Air Force T-X Competition: Who Will Win?

If the U.S. Air Force chooses Boeing’s submission for its T-X advanced jet trainer competition, the company expects to build the aircraft in Saint Louis, Missouri.

The move would generate up to 1,800 jobs in the Midwestern city and keep the company’s plant open for the foreseeable future after production of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler inevitably comes to a close. Boeing has thus far built two prototype T-X aircraft for the Air Force’s competition.

“Our highly skilled St. Louis workforce designed, assembled and brought Boeing T-X to life, and they continue to define the future, not just for our company, but for our customers and the global aerospace industry,” Shelley Lavender, St. Louis senior executive and president of Boeing Military Aircraft, said in a statement.

Boeing’s offering is a custom designed aircraft based on technology from the company’s F/A-18 series fighters. Rival Lockheed Martin is offering its T-50A, which was developed in South Korea using technology from the company’s F-16 Fighting Falcon. Both aircraft are powered by a single General Electric F404 afterburning turbofan and should offer comparable aircraft performance.

Meanwhile, Italian manufacturer Leonardo is offering its T-100 trainer—while was ultimately derived from the Russian Yakovlev Yak-130—for the T-X competition. There are also several other marginal competitors that are considering bidding on the project, but out of those, only Leonard is a serious contender. That being said, the European bid only has an outside shot of winning the tender.

Northrop Grumman—which built the Air Force’s current advanced trainer, the T-38 Talon—dropped out of the contest in February 2017 after concluding it was not worth the effort. The company had developed and built a F404-powered prototype for the T-X competition, but it is not clear if the aircraft ever flew before the company shelved its efforts.

The Air Force is expected to pick a winner for the T-X tender before the end of the year. The T-X program could be worth as much as $16 billion for an initial buy of 350 planes for the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Air Force specifically requested that the aircraft have space, weight, power and hardpoints built-in for a future growth variant which could serve in other roles.

It’s not inconceivable that a future T-X variant might be used as an aggressor or light attack aircraft. Moreover, allied air forces are certain to be interested in purchasing the winner of the T-X competition, thus the $16 billion value of the current Air Force program is just the tip of the iceberg.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image Credit: Creative Commons.