WASHINGTON — Boeing’s effort to build a new trainer aircraft for the Air Force is plagued by safety problems, schedule and testing delays, and the risk the T-7A Red Hawk could fall even further behind schedule, the Government Accountability Office said in a scathing report.
Boeing’s relationship with the Air Force has also been strained by the T-7′s issues, GAO said in the May 18 report, with service officials describing their ties as “tenuous.”
As the program proceeds and Boeing losses, which already exceed $1 billion, mount, GAO said, program officials expect more disagreements between the Air Force and the contractor. While the Air Force waits for the T-7 to be delivered, its own costs related to maintaining older jets could grow, the report warned.
Boeing said in a statement to Defense News it plans to keep working with the service to fix the problems highlighted in the report, but did not address specific issues asked about by Defense News.
“Boeing and the U.S. Air Force are partnered on a path forward regarding these issues,” the company said. “Additionally, we continue to evaluate findings and discovery during testing activities, which is standard practice when developing a new aircraft.”
Boeing in 2018 won an indefinite delivery contract, estimated to be worth up to $9.2 billion, to build the Air Force’s new jet trainer, set to replace the more than half-century-old T-38 Talon.
Student pilots will be able to use this advanced trainer to learn to fly jets akin to advanced fighters such as the F-35, which has capabilities that didn’t exist when the T-38 was first built. New capabilities the T-7 will bring include fly-by-wire controls and high-altitude maneuverability. Additionally, this trainer will allow students to learn advanced air-to-air maneuvers and be able to accommodate pilots of varying sizes, including men and women.
A shaky schedule
The T-7 has seen several schedule delays. Most recently, problems with a potentially dangerous escape system and ejection seat caused the Air Force to postpone to February 2025 a milestone C production decision on the T-7. The Air Force originally expected that decision to come in late 2023.
This means Boeing is now expected to start delivering the T-7 in December 2025, and the Air Force is preparing for it to reach initial operational capability in spring 2027 at the earliest. That would be nearly a decade after the Air Force originally hoped to have student pilots flying in its advanced trainer.
But program officials told GAO that even the new schedule Boeing laid out in January 2023 is “likely optimistic” because it “depends on favorable assumptions.”
Boeing’s revised T-7 schedule assumes the program will have a high success rate through the rest of its development and testing, Air Force officials told GAO. This leaves “little to no margin” for error, including test failures, unexpected software revisions, a possible need to redesign the escape system, or other surprises, GAO said.
If something goes wrong, the report added, the T-7 program could fall even further behind — perhaps significantly so, potentially jeopardizing even the revised production decision date and further pushing back production and delivery.
The Air Force is now planning to have the T-7′s development, testing and production phases considerably overlap, GAO said, which will add a great deal more risk to the schedule.
This approach, known as concurrency, can lead to rising costs or further schedule delays because if testing finds hidden problems, the contractor could have to go back into aircraft that have already been built to fix those issues.
Program officials told GAO they doubted overlapping development and testing would lead to major changes to the T-7, and said concurrency had not driven up program costs.
But such problems have happened before, GAO said, citing a previous 2018 report that found it would cost an additional $1.4 billion to fix problems in F-35 Joint Strike Fighters that had been built before testing was complete.
Boeing also plans to start building the first production T-7s before the Air Force officially places its order, GAO said, which could carry further risks. Boeing started building some parts for the T-7 in early 2022 on its own dime, GAO said, and plans to start assembling the first aircraft by early 2024, the report said.
GAO said this means construction would start about a year before the Air Force plans to place its first order for the aircraft, which will happen no sooner than February 2025 after development and a great deal of testing has been finished. And by the time the Air Force places its order, the report said, government officials believe Boeing could have finished building seven to 10 T-7s it could present to the service.
GAO said Boeing told the Air Force in March 2022 it had already started building some parts that would go into the T-7 — even though the Air Force warned Boeing two months earlier it was under no obligation to buy trainer jets built with those parts until it placed an order. The Air Force also told Boeing any work it does has to meet all requirements for future orders.
Boeing told GAO it began initial construction on planes that could eventually be delivered to the Air Force because it faced pressure to keep its suppliers busy and manufacturing costs down, particularly with schedule delays and financial losses mounting.
But this presents “significant risks” to the Air Force, GAO said. Because no contract is in place for building those aircraft, GAO said, the Air Force and the Defense Contract Management Agency can’t conduct all the production oversight needed to make sure the planes will meet contract requirements. Even conducting oversight, DCMA warned the Air Force, could have the unintended effect of committing the Air Force to accept some of Boeing’s work on the T-7, even without a contract, the report said.
The T-7 could also change significantly between the test phase and the award of a low-rate production contract, which would then have to be retrofitted on already-built planes, GAO said. DCMA has already spotted more than 8,000 differences between the five test T-7s Boeing has already built, and the Air Force’s own contract specifications, the report added.
Older trainers, rising costs
While these delays likely won’t drive up the T-7′s price for the Air Force, GAO said they could lead to other rising costs. With the T-7 still years away from becoming operational, the service will need to keep training student pilots in its existing fleet of 504 T-38s and — to handle the more advanced aspects of pilot training — the F-22, which costs more than eight times as much to fly per hour than the T-38 and T-7. In all, GAO estimated trainer delays could cost the Air Force almost $1 billion.
The Air Force is also at risk of higher costs if it can’t order all 351 T-7s it plans to buy before the ordering period expires, GAO said. The Air Force now expects Boeing to start building the first four production T-7s in 2025 and gradually ramp up production until Boeing builds 48 Red Hawks each year between 2030 and 2033. The final 18 T-7s are expected to be built in 2034.
In an issue that echoes a lingering headache with the F-35 program, the Air Force told GAO it doesn’t have all the data from Boeing that it needs to maintain the T-7.
By January 2023, Boeing had provided the Air Force one-third of the list of parts and quantities used to build and maintain the T-7, known as a bill of materials. That is more than three years later than the contract specified, GAO said, and some of the information the Air Force needs to conduct its own maintenance was redacted.
Boeing told GAO some suppliers were not under contract at first and said its periodically updating the program office.
The Air Force wants to do as much “organic,” or in-house, maintenance on the T-7 as possible. But without that data, GAO said, it may be forced to rely upon Boeing for maintenance and repairs.
The Air Force also needs the list of parts so it can manage its supply chain, and find replacements for parts as they become obsolete, GAO said. Without that bill of materials, the Air Force told GAO it won’t know what equipment it will need to maintain the test aircraft the service plans to begin flight-testing at Edwards Air Force Base in California this September.
Ejection seat delaying tests
Problems with the T-7′s escape system have already delayed the plane’s testing, GAO said, and the system will likely need several more revisions to its design and test before it is safe enough to use.
The Air Force only allowed men to fly when older planes such as the T-38 were originally built, so their cockpits were not designed to accommodate some women or people with smaller frames. The T-7 is intended to be safe and comfortable for pilots with a wide range of body sizes and shapes.
But GAO said tests of the T-7′s escape system show considerable risks for many pilots — even larger people — including potential concussions, spinal injuries, or eye and neck injuries. Tests conducted with the largest manikins barely pass the Air Force’s safety standards, the report said, and smaller and average-sized manikins were at greater risk.
After 2021 tests raised alarm bells about the T-7′s escape system, Boeing worked to improve it. The Air Force said minor adjustments to the seat improved safety and reduced the risk to pilots.
A subsequent sled test in February 2023 showed enough progress that the service plans to proceed with a limited military flight release, allowing its pilots to begin test-flying the T-7 while the final problems with the escape system are fixed. In a sled test designed to simulate an ejection sequence, the Air Force accelerates a rail-mounted cockpit with a manikin inside to speeds similar to a T-7 in flight before launching the manikin.
But even that testing plan means the Air Force is likely almost two years away from showing the escape system meets all the safety requirements.
The Air Force and Boeing also disagree over how close the T-7′s flight control software is to being finished, GAO said. Boeing expects the software will be done by the middle of this year, the report said, but the Air Force’s own software experts said five or six more revisions to the software will be needed to fix problems with the trainer’s flight control, particularly as the T-7 takes on more challenging flights such as conducting maneuvers when climbing or diving at high angles of attack.
Each iteration could take six more months, Air Force experts told GAO, which could delay the completion of the software by more than two years and — if the changes are significant — could disrupt flight testing.
In a sign of the tensions over the program, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall on Monday said the concept of digital engineering — which Boeing has touted as a revolutionary advancement in how new aircraft can be built — has in some ways been “overhyped.”
Engineers have been using digital tools to design aircraft for decades, Kendall said at a breakfast roundtable with reporters hosted by the Defense Writers Group, after being asked about the T-7′s delays and the fanfare that accompanied its digital design. Modern computing and data storage advancements have given engineers the ability to process vast amounts of information and swiftly communicate with one another, he said, allowing digital design processes to be fully integrated, he said.
This has led to notable cost and schedule savings, Kendall said. But digital advancements won’t replace real-world testing, he said — particularly when engineers are trying to “push the envelope” on entirely new designs and don’t have models upon which they can fully rely.
“It is a significant improvement, but it has been overhyped,” Kendall said. “More integrated digital designs, better modeling all help, but they’re not revolutionary. They’re a significant improvement, [but] they don’t replace testing entirely. When you’re doing something that’s going to be radically different than prior programs, you’ve got to get it into testing.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.