The Air Force is telling industry officials what it needs in a replacement for the T-38 Talon, above. (Jo Hunter via Air Force)
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Amid a cloud of uncertainty over how the Air Force's next-generation trainer jet program will be funded, the service is beginning to tell competitors about the aircraft's requirements.
For three days starting Tuesday, industry will descend on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for a series of meetings with Air Force officials.
"It's a program that needs to happen, and it is by no means clear how to fund it," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, Fairfax, Va.
Despite a push by the Air Force, acquisition funds for the T-X program were not included in the fiscal 2012 budget. Because the government is operating under a continuing resolution that leaves the budget at 2012 levels, the program will be unfunded as long as the continuing resolution is in effect. Senior Defense Department officials have made it clear they don't know if or when the resolution will be replaced with a new budget.
The winner of the T-X competition will replace Northrop Grumman's T-38 Talon, in use since 1959. "The T-38 needs a replacement system by sometime in the 2020s," a deadline that means the replacement program needs to be up and running "by the end of this decade" at the latest, Aboulafia said.
"It's one of those things they're just gonna have to find the cash, even though it's not a shooter," Aboulafia said.
The winner of the competition will be the primary training vehicle for the F-35 joint strike fighter, as well as legacy planes such as the F-15 and F-16.
The industry event will occur two weeks after Italy's Alenia Aermacchi announced a partnership with General Dynamics to offer its T-100 jet to the program. Alenia is a subsidiary of Italian giant Finmeccanica. The trainer has been purchased by Italy, Israel and Singapore.
Alenia's offering is "very contemporary," said Chris Marzilli, president of GD's C4 Systems. "I believe as a corporation, having done our homework, that we have a winner both from a technical performance and an affordability aspect."
Despite funding challenges, Marzilli believes a formal request for proposal will be issued sometime in "early 2014," with selection coming later that year.
The Alenia-GD partnership is the latest entrant into a program whose bidders include partnerships between BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman, pitching its Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, and Lockheed Martin, which is offering the Korean Aerospace Industries' T-50.
Mike Griswold, Lockheed's director of business development on the T-X competition, said late last year that Lockheed's role as lead contractor for the F-35 is an advantage for their offering.
In contrast to the other competitors, Boeing plans to offer a brand-new aircraft.
"Our analysis consistently indicates a purpose-built solution will provide the most affordable and effective solution to the Air Force's advanced flight training requirements," spokeswoman Karen Fincutter wrote in a statement.
Aboulafia said it is unclear whether the Air Force will look at marketing the trainer abroad as a light combat aircraft, and is uncertain what market there would be for such a craft.
"The market is bifurcated, basically going between medium-weight combat planes [such as an F-16] and not having much of an air force," Aboulafia said.
An Air Force spokesman did not return requests for comment.