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T-X: who will win?

Photo: Leonardo DRS


In the first of a new series of features, we look at the three main T-X contenders.

Leonardo DRS has been proactive in talking up the T-100, a USAF-optimized variant of the popular Italian M-346. Despite having a somewhat troubled path to the T-X competiton, the M-346 Master is one of the most advanced jet trainers available in the world today. The Italian Air Force’s training center at Lecce is drawing the gaze of air forces in the region, impressed by its low cost and embedded synthetic training.

However, US prime contractors have twice ditched manufacturer Leonardo. On January 25, 2017, Leonardo’s partner Raytheon walked away from T-X and left the Italian manufacturer, plus partners CAE USA and Honeywell Aerospace, in the lurch. In early April 2015, General Dynamics had previously pulled out of T-X.

Today, Leonardo is partnered with DRS. The aircraft will be built in Tuskegee, Alabama, the engines will be built by Honeywell in Phoenix, Arizona, and the ground-based training System will be built by CAE in Tampa, Florida. It’s an impressive combination, with CAE being a world-leader in simulation and synthetic training — a big part in T-X.

The USAF has now named Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, as the bed down location for T-X.  The winning candidate will start delivering aircraft here as soon as 2022.

The M-346 should be a very attractive proposition for the USAF. It’s proven and it’s probably the most affordable, without compromising capability. So much so that it came out lowest cost in the very public Polish Air Force trainer competition, well below the cost of the competing Lockheed Martin/KAI T-50, which is also in the T-X running.

Boeing has built a brand-new clean sheet aircraft from scratch with partner Saab. Factoring-in the cost of developing and testing a brand new aircraft, it’s hard to see how this could come out cheaper than the competitively-priced M-346-derived T-100, with far lower non-recurring development costs.

The questionmark over the T-100 is its ability to meet the tough USAF performance parameters, which many would argue are pitched too high for an ‘affordable’ training solution. While its turning performance is said to be ‘on the line’, the T-100 has a lot to offer..

A USAF keen to keep costs down cannot ignore the price tag of the T-100 and can’t fail to be impressed by the Embedded Tactical Training System (ETTS) already proven by the Italian Air Force. T-100 students would be confronted with a new large-area display, and the ability to link up with a colleague on the ground to act as a wingman or as an enemy. Even adversary aircraft can be projected on the Master’s ‘radar’ and HUD while there are no real aircraft in the vicinity. The aim of the embedded training system is to be able to simulate everything on the ground, from basic training to complex flying scenarios.

On paper, the T-100 has cost on its side (although Boeing T-X pricing is difficult to gauge), it has great synthetic training (that’s proven) and it has good fast jet raw performance. Politics has a big part to play in T-X, but the USAF has a very strong candidate in the T-100.

In this video, former Israeli Air Force commanders discuss why they chose the M-346 to train their fighter pilots. The M-346 is the platform the advanced T-100 will be based on.

Posted in News, T-X


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