The end-of-the-year contract rush for the US Defense Department has been good to Boeing. As the clock ticks down on the fiscal year, Boeing grabbed its third DOD contract in a month. This time, it’s the Air Force’s T-X next-generation advanced jet trainer contract. Boeing’s joint bid with Swedish aerospace company Saab came in more than 50 percent below the Air Force’s initial cost estimate, shutting out Lockheed and the US subsidiary of Leonardo (formerly Finmeccanica).
The award comes less than a week after the Air Force awarded a Boeing-Leonardo bid the win for the Air Force’s replacement of its UH-1 nuclear security helicopters. And on August 30, Boeing won the Navy’s MQ-25 unmanned carrier-launched tanker contract.
The T-X is designed to bring pilot training into the 21st century, providing an aircraft to train pilots in the pipeline to fly the F-35 Lightning II. The new jets—at least 351 of them—will replace the Air Force’s aging fleet of Northrop T-38 trainers. Those T-38s, based on the Northrop F-5 fighter, have been in service since the 1960s. The new contract also includes 46 training simulators and ground equipment. It could eventually be expanded to 475 aircraft and may also result in international sales to other countries who have committed to buying the F-35.
The T-X effort was similar to Boeing’s winning Air Force helicopter bid, in that it was a joint effort with a foreign defense company and was tailored to reduce costs as much as possible. Once again, the bid seriously undercut the expected budget for the program, with a proposed price tag of $9.2 billion. The Air Force’s original cost estimate for the T-X program was $19.7 billion.
“This new aircraft will provide the advanced training capabilities we need to increase the lethality and effectiveness of future Air Force pilots,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather A. Wilson said in a statement on the award. “Through competition, we will save at least $10 billion on the T-X program.”
The trainer aircraft was designed from scratch in partnership with Saab, drawing on technology from the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Saab Gripen fighter. Much of the savings squeezed out of the program came from component reuse, despite being a “clean sheet” design. The twin-tailed aircraft is also designed for easy maintenance, with a side-opening canopy for its two-seat cockpit that allows easy swap-out of ejector seats, reuse of components across multiple systems for reduced-cost replacement, and easy access to drop-down panels for maintenance access.
Two prototypes of the T-X were produced by Boeing and Saab, with Saab building components for the aft fuselage and other systems. Saab had promised as part of the bid to open a new manufacturing plant in the US to build its T-X components, though the company has not announced a location.
Under the initial $813 million awarded yesterday, Boeing will deliver five initial aircraft and seven simulators to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, by 2023. The Air Force expects to have signed off on initial operating capability by the fall of 2024 to then ramp up full-scale production. Full delivery and deployment of the T-X is expected in 2034.