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Need to know, 2015: The fleet

Despite tight budgets, expect some fleet modernization projects to continue in 2015. Here's the latest:

F-35 training. F-35 operational training will kick off in full this year, with brand new facilities at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, opening and more of the aircraft arriving.

The new Academic Training Center is expected to welcome the first students in May. Instructor pilots have been in training at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and the Arizona base will see the first groups of pilots who will fly the jet operationally.

The base will eventually be home to 144 F-35As. Sixteen of the jets were to be there by the end of 2014.

Hill Air Force Base, Utah, will be the jet's first operational base, and is in the middle of a more than $100 million renovation. Twenty-three of 36 projects are expected to be complete by July and the remainder by 2019, according to the Air Force. The active 388th Fighter Wing and Air Force Reserve 419th Fighter Wing will be the first operational units. The first jet is expected to arrive in September.

The first National Guard unit will be at Burlington International Airport, Vermont, with 18 jets expected to arrive by 2020. The service picked Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, for the first F-35 base in the Pacific. The move is not official yet, with the service expected to finish an environmental impact statement early this year.

KC-46 first flights and increased manning. The first KC-46A is expected to take to the air in a test flight in spring, following delays on the first flight of a test version.

Boeing's test prototype for the next generation tanker program, an engineering and manufacturing development aircraft, was originally slated to fly in June. However, wiring problems on the aircraft pushed that back to the final days of 2014. The first fully configured jet, complete with military hardware including the refueling boom, is set to fly for the first time in April.

While Boeing has been "challenged" by the KC-46A timeline, Air Force officials say the contractor is committed to delivering the first set of 18 tankers in 2017 at McConnell, said Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the Air Force's military deputy for acquisition.

The initial flight of the military-specification aircraft is completely handled by Boeing, with airmen getting involved once the first military-specification model is built and flown this spring. Airmen in 2015 will test and fly the aircraft at Boeing Field in Seattle, along with work at Edwards Air Force Base, California; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, said Lt. Col. James Quashnock, the commander of the 418th Flight Test Squadron Detachment 1.

The Air Force in November announced that 41 officers and enlisted airmen from active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve have been selected to be the initial operational test and evaluation aircrew and will begin their work this year.

Next generation bomber. The Air Force is expecting to make the biggest step toward its next generation bomber in spring 2015 by awarding the contract to the company that will produce the aircraft.

The program, called the Long Range Strike Bomber, will be the service's successor to the B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit. The service in June sent its requirements to the industry on what specifications the aircraft needs to meet, and has remained secretive about the program since.

"The LRS-B is a top modernization priority for the Air Force," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said when the specifications were announced. "It will be an adaptable and highly capable system based upon mature technology. We look forward to industry's best efforts in supporting this critical national security capability."

The service expects to field 80 to 100 of the bombers to replace the aging B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit fleets. The service is hoping to keep the unit cost per aircraft at about $550 million in fiscal 2010 dollars.

"That program is designed around a fixed set of requirements [with] relatively mature technologies, [where we will] build the first version knowing it won't have everything on it that we want or will want," said William LaPlante, the assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, in a June speech. "We're building an adaptable approach with an open architecture, [with] places on the wings that allow us to customize sensors and weapons with future capabilities."

The program's schedule calls for delivery of the initial aircraft in the mid-2020s before the current fleet goes out of service.

New trainer. The fiscal 2015 Defense Authorization Act includes a request for $8.2 million in research funding for the Air Force to move forward on replacing its aging T-38 trainer aircraft, to put pilots on the path to fly a fifth-generation aircraft.

The service hopes to buy 350 "T-X" aircraft to replace Air Education and Training Command's 433 T-38C. While the initial operating capability for the new aircraft is not expected until 2023. In 2015, the service will begin researching its requirements for the new aircraft.

The request for proposals from industry is planned for 2017, though companies are already stepping forward with offerings. General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Textron/Beechcraft presented briefings on their solutions to the Air Force in August.

"The challenge with T-X is, can we truly get a good trainer for a good price without doing development? That's kind of our goal, not develop something new," said William LaPlante, the Air Force's undersecretary for acquisition in September, noting one challenge is "making sure the requirements on that are reasonable enough that we can make sure there is a good, healthy competition for a non-development solution."

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