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The Air Force’s T-38 trainer will be needed a few years longer than planned.
The new trainer was left out of the budget request for next year, and the Air Force is targeting a request for proposal by fiscal 2016, with the hope of reaching initial operating capability capacity seven years later.
The service had previously set a target date of 2020 for initial operating capability on the new trainer program, dubbed the T-X. But that target has now slipped three to four years, a victim of shrinking budgets and the need to fund higher priority modernization projects.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told a May 8 Senate hearing that his office is looking at IOC in “fiscal year 2023 or 2024.”
The delay is a direct result of budget constraints that have hit the service’s modernization program particularly hard.
“Several key modernization programs remain unfunded given the current fiscal environment, including replacement for the aging T-38 trainer,” Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick said. “The T-X program was deferred in order to support higher Air Force priorities. The current fiscal climate forced difficult decisions, and T-X was one we had to push back.”
As a result, the program was left out of the president’s fiscal 2014 budget entirely. But Welsh insisted the service still views the trainer as a priority.
“It’s critical,” Welsh told the senators. “It’s part of the fabric of the Air Force. The T-38 replacement is kind of like the tide — it’s coming, we just have to figure out when. Right now, the problem is finding the funding, based on other priorities.”
Welsh has been steadfast that his three largest program priorities are the KC-46 tanker replacement program, the F-35 joint strike fighter and the proposed long-range bomber. Compared with those, T-X simply doesn’t rank.
That is partly because the Northrop T-38 trainer, first put into service in 1958, has been impressively resilient. Welsh said the plane is still “viable” and suited to the mission, and he expressed confidence that the service could continue using them through the late 2020s if need be.
The 2023 date “isn’t ideal, but as long as they can maintain the T-38s, it is doable,” said Rebecca Grant, president of the IRIS Research group, said.
While this slip is due to “unusual” circumstances, Grant said the Air Force needs to pick a target date and commit to it.
“It will never be easy to find the money for it, but they have to have it eventually. The service needs to make a choice on performance and cost,” she said. “They need a solid analysis, and after that they can figure out what they are willing to pay for.”
Sticking to a target may be easier said than done.
The 2016 request for proposal date is “contingent on budgetary funding and priority decisions,” Gulick said. And any additional budget delays — such as exclusion from the fiscal 2015 budget — “will very likely impact the overall schedule for delivery of capability.”
Despite the delay, interest in the program remains high.
T-X is “important to both the Air Force and industry,” Grant said. “There are so few major programs coming in the near future, that when something like T-X comes along, industry will put real money on it.”
Any company that wins the T-X contract will have a fairly large buy from the Air Force, but the strategic landscape of the mid-2020s may also provide the opportunity for other uses of the plane.
“By 2023, you could see roles for ISR or strategic strike,” as well as foreign military sales deals for the plane, Grant said.
Wayne Morse, BAE Systems spokesman, expressed confidence that the delay will have no impact on its decision to offer the Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, a joint project with Northrop Grumman.
“We understand the fiscal restraints and pressure, but we’re going to stand by and be committed to this program — and so is the Air Force,” he said. “The T-38 is still getting older, and we’ll be there when the Air Force is ready to move. We feel our family of systems is the best out there, and it’s available now.”
Lockheed is offering the Korean Aerospace Industries’ T-50.
“Lockheed Martin stands ready to support any way we can as the USAF confirms its plans to replace its fleet of trainer jets,” Mark Johnson, company spokesman, said in an email.
A spokesman for General Dynamics, which along with Alenia Aermacchi is offering the T-100 trainer, declined to comment. The T-100 has been purchased by Italy, Israel and Singapore.
Boeing, the only prime contender offering a “clean-sheet” approach, “has conducted extensive studies of both new and derivative platforms as well as many industry teaming approaches,” Karen Fincutter, Boeing spokeswoman, said in an email. “We are evaluating the Air Force requirements and updated IOC date.” ■