WASHINGTON — The Air Force is considering a new trainer aircraft — one intended to emulate 4th and 5th generation fighter jets and be able to better train the service’s newest fighter pilots how to fly in combat.

Nope, not the T-7A Red Hawk. Another one. Maybe.

The Air Force released a request for information for a new trainer aircraft, dubbed the Advanced Tactical Trainer, on Oct. 12. But given the service has the first T-7s on the way, scheduled to arrive at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas in 2023, the service’s apparent interest in another — similar — trainer left some observers scratching their heads.

Dan Grazier of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight said the Air Force’s consideration of another trainer aircraft raises questions about its strategy and priorities — and perhaps about the T-7.

“This does seem like a really curious move,” Grazier said in a Nov. 29 interview. “There’s a couple of things that this move communicates that I think the Air Force didn’t really mean to communicate.”

In 2018, the Air Force awarded a $9.2 billion contract to Boeing to build 351 of the Air Force’s next trainer, unveiled as the T-7A Red Hawk the following year. Its use of digital engineering, open architecture, and other innovative design techniques excited many service leaders, and was seen as a new model for rapid, efficient aircraft development.

In a statement, Boeing said it’s interested in exploring what ACC wants to see in an advanced trainer and stressed the capability of the T-7 to evolve and meet the command’s needs.

“From its digital beginnings, the T-7 was designed for growth,” Boeing said. “This exciting opportunity is being explored to see how the T-7′s growth path for future missions align with Air Combat Command’s ATT initiative.”

The T-7 is intended to replace the T-38 jet trainer, which dates back to the 1960s and has been at the center of several fatal crashes in recent years — the most recent on Nov. 19. The Air Force’s newest 5th generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, are also far beyond the T-38′s capabilities.

“Every day, that [T-38] airplane becomes just another step more disconnected from the advanced avionics, advanced sensing, the advanced processing that our modern fighters have, and so we can’t fill that void fast enough,” Air Combat Command head Gen. Mark Kelly said in an Oct. 25 event with the Mitchell Institute.

Kelly said the T-7 is already slated to go to Air Education and Training Command to teach the service’s youngest aviators how to fly.

“But I need to get our [ACC] aviators, as soon as I can, something that is not such a leap from a 1964 T-38 to a 2021 F-35,” Kelly said.

Kelly acknowledged the T-7 may be able to do everything ACC needs it to do, and the answer could be buying more of them. But he also said industry may be able to offer some new ideas that could either be added to the T-7, or lead to a completely new air frame.

He added that ACC needs additional features in the aircraft it uses to conduct fighter pilot training — features the T-7 was never required to have.

Kelly said those features could include increased use of sensors, and increased fuel requirements for mission duration and afterburner use. And he expects it could have some rudimentary weapons computing capability and some simulation playback capabilities to teach pilots how to respond to threats.

“All of those drive requirements that weren’t in the original T-7 statement of requirements,” Kelly said. “And so it’s not a criticism of the T-7 — they built what they were designed to build. But it may or may not fit the demand of going from flying to fighting, because they’re a different avenue. They just happen to take place in the same space.”

Air Combat Command declined an interview request from Defense News, but said in written responses to questions that this proposed trainer’s requirements would differ from the T-7 and help ACC “most effectively and efficiently train fighter pilots.”

“The goal of the ATT is to provide pilots with training that emulates the aircraft (systems, displays, etc) they will eventually be flying at their operational unit, thus reducing the amount of training hours spent on operational fighter aircraft,” ACC said in a Nov. 23 email.

Flying the ATT would allow pilots to acquire “transferable learned skills” that would save combat fighters time they need for mission training and preparation, ACC said.

Want vs. need

The Air Force first posted a request for information Oct. 12 for an Advanced Tactical Trainer that would primarily be used for Air Combat Command’s Initial Tactical Training program. The RFI said it would also be used to provide adversary air support, or playing the enemy during combat training exercises, and lastly as a tactical surrogate for existing or future fighters.

A Q&A document posted online Nov. 9, drawn from one-on-one exchanges with industry representatives, further detailed some of ACC’s hopes for this trainer. It would have to carry munitions for training purposes only, but not to release them. And it would have to emulate 4th and 5th generation fighters and their performance capabilities, possibly with transonic acceleration.

ACC said in the Q&A it hopes that using the proposed trainer instead of actual fighter aircraft would shave 12 to 18 months off the timeline required to fully train a pilot.

But in a time when future budgets are expected to be tight and Air Force officials regularly speak about the need to make tough budgeting choices and possibly divest aircraft, Grazier said the service’s apparent interest in another trainer doesn’t fit.

“This almost sounds like a ‘want-to-have,’ [rather] than a ‘need-to-have,’” Grazier said.

Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the RFI “does make you scratch your head and wonder, how can the Air Force afford another new-start aircraft program when their acquisition pipeline is already quite full?”

Weighing T-7 upgrades

Harrison cautioned that the Air Force’s request for information on another trainer doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to launch a whole additional program.

Instead, he said, the suggestions the Air Force collects could give it some ideas for improving the Boeing-built T-7A, allowing ACC to fly the F-35 less.

“This is definitely going to ramp up the pressure on Boeing to adapt the T-7 so that it can meet these types of requirements,” Harrison said. “The last thing Boeing wants to see is another training aircraft program being started that would compete for budget [dollars] with what they’ve already won.”

The T-7, which was designed to be easily adapted and upgradeable, should be able to do that, Harrison said. And if it means the Air Force could buy even more of their planes, he said, Boeing has a clear incentive to modify them to meet the ATT requirements.

But if the T-7 can’t do what ACC needs, Grazier said, it raises questions as to whether the Air Force should hit the brakes on the program before it goes any further.

“Does this mean that the requirements, and the design for the T-7A aren’t what we need?” Grazier said. “And if that’s the case, then should we still be pressing forward with a T-7A?”

John Venable, a former fighter pilot who now is a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, said the apparent consideration of another trainer aircraft “makes little sense” — and could be a sign the Air Force left some gaps in the capabilities it requested when it asked industry to build a trainer jet that became the T-7.

“If Boeing is actually meeting the specifications that were called for in the RFI [for the T-7], they should be able to take that air frame and modify it,” Venable said.

It makes sense the Air Force would want to have an aircraft for fighter pilots to train in that doesn’t require time in an actual fighter jet — particularly the F-35, which has turned out to be more expensive to fly than expected, Harrison said.

“I could see where they’re coming from in terms of trying to … save wear and tear on the [fighter] platform,” Harrison said.

ACC would also benefit from having a dual-seat trainer like the ATT, so newer pilots could have an experienced pilot in the unit right behind them offering guidance, Harrison said. The 5th-generation F-22 and F-35 fighters are single-seat aircraft.

And, Kelly said, ACC needs a trainer that can fly at a much lower cost than aircraft like the F-35, which costs between $34,000 and $36,000 to fly for one hour.

“I need something … that’s not $20,000-plus cost per flying hour, closer to $2,000 to $3,000 cost per flying hour, that comes a little closer to our modern avionics,” Kelly said.

But this issue underscores broader issues with the sustainability of the Air Force’s current fighter fleet, Grazier said.

“Pursuing another training aircraft is a real indictment on the current fleet of fighter aircraft,” Grazier said. “Between the F-22 and F-35, this is further evidence that those programs really are unaffordable if we have to have an entirely new trainer aircraft to pick up the fleet.”

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.

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