T-X: Finally a Fun USAF Competition to Watch?

The USAF is holding a competition to replace the Northrop T-38C. The USAF is referring to the new trainer simply as "T-X" for now. After a couple decades of USAF aircraft competitions that have felt unfulfilling or even disappointing, I think this competition has the potential to actually be fun to watch.

The T-38 has served its country well for more than 50 years. Until the early 90s, every USAF pilot for more than three decades had trained in it. It's an absolute blast to fly and with the C-model upgrade it received updated avionics and a heads up display. As great as the aircraft is, it's getting tired. It's old turbojets guzzle fuel and it takes a lot of maintenance to keep the old systems running. It also has some quirks that have killed several instructors and students over the years. It's definitely time for a replacement.

Unfortunately, the USAF's recent aircraft competitions have all left me with a sour taste in my mouth. The YF-22 vs YF-23 competition pitted two amazing aircraft against each other. The YF-22 probably deserved to win, but the YF-23 was no slouch. It's always tough to watch a competition when there are only two competitors because the loser always looks bad, even if it was also an outstanding option.

The X-35 vs X-32 competition kind of felt the same way. I followed this competition a lot more closely than the YF-22/YF-33 one. Northrop Grumman's X-32 looked a tad goofy, but I feel like it's STOVL system might have been a better way to go than the giant fan in the Marine Corps' F-35B. It was tough to watch Northrop Grumman lose a second major competition, and the F-35 looks enough like a mini-F-22 that you have to wonder how much bias that caused, intentional or otherwise.

The competition for the USAF's new air refueling tanker was just a mess. First, there was a scandal where a USAF official tried to sell an outrageously expensive lease contract to Boeing in exchange for personal favors. Then, we thought that Northrop had caught a break when it's Airbus A330-based design won the competition. Northrop immediately broke ground on a production facility in Mobile, AL, meaning that although the aircraft was a European design, it would have been built largely in America by American workers. Boeing protested though. Their official complaint was that Northrop had put forth an aircraft closer to 777 class than the 767 that Boeing had competed. "Of course it was going to win because it could carry more gas and fly further," they complained. They also played the "Made in America" card pretty hard. Eventually, the USAF overturned their decision and awarded the contract to Boeing. I'm sure that that KC-46 will be an outstanding tanker. However, I'm sure that Northrop's KC-30 would have been outstanding as well. Protesting the outcome of the competition delayed production of the new tanker, frankly leaving KC-135 crews at risk. One KC-135 crew even lost their lives waiting for a newer, better tanker to arrive.

The competition for a Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) aircraft might have been fun, but it never materialized in the way I'd hoped. The USAF bought a few A-29 Super Tocanos for the Afghani Air Force, but seemed to give up altogether on the idea of buying LAAR aircraft for our own use. However, after several years, the USAF has once again admitted that it might need an aircraft to help supplement the A-10s mission. Defense News reports that the Air Force might be gearing up for an "OA-X" competition to find a lighter, cheaper companion for the A-10. I'd love to see this competition, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

After all the disappointment of those competitions, I'm actually looking forward to watching the T-X selection process. First off, there are several entrants. It won't be one winner/one loser like many previous programs. There will be strengths and weaknesses to each aircraft. The final selection will tell us a lot about the USAF's priorities and it will (theoretically) be the best balance of advantages and compromises. It will also pit two different philosophies against each other. Some of the entrants will be brand-new designs. Others will be licensed versions of existing aircraft. Both the T-6A and T-1A used for USAF pilot training right now fit into that category. The T-6A is a licensed version of the PC-9M and the T-1A is a variant of the MU-300 and Hawker 400. It'll be interesting to see whether scratch-built or commercial off the shelf (COTS) prevails here.

After all the complaints and debacles of recent competitions, I'm sure the USAF will work hard to ensure transparency and objectivity in their decision making process. If they were really smart, the USAF would find a way to make some sort of reality TV series covering parts of the competition. I'd love to watch footage of test pilots putting these aircraft through their paces and discussing the differences. I'd like to watch each of them fly with the T-38C and with each other. This could be a major PR extravaganza for the USAF if they can figure how to do it right. Enough about that though, let's look at the airplanes!

Boeing recently unveiled their aircraft, a clean sheet design designated the T-X. (A tad presumptuous perhaps?) It's gorgeous, resembling an updated, miniature F-18. Like several of the competitors, it's a single-engine aircraft. Although this will cut down significantly on costs, it would mean that USAF pilots wouldn't ever fly a multi-engine aircraft in pilot training. There's quite a bit of speculation as to whether this will be a plus or a minus in the competition. We don't have any other specs for Boeing's T-X yet, but I expect it'll be a strong competitor.
Raytheon is entering the T-100, a twin-engined jet based on the Leonardo M-346. The M-346 is operational in Israel and Singapore with several aircraft on order by Poland and Italy. It's a proven design that should do well with some upgraded systems. Raytheon produced the T-6A for Beechcraft, meaning it's proven itself a capable supplier of aircraft to the USAF. It would be a major coup if Raytheon could claim that it had constructed every fixed-wing pilot training aircraft in the USAF.
Lockheed Martin has entered the T-50A into the T-X competition. The T-50A is a variant of the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 Golden Eagle. It's a design that Lockheed helped KAI with and looks very similar to the F-16 for a reason: many of the parts in the T-50 are the same parts used in the F-16. This could be a competitive advantage over several of the other designs. The T-50 is a proven, operational aircraft that serves many roles in the Republic of Korea Air Force. It also operates in Indonesia, Thailand, Iraq, and the Philippines. Lockheed has both of our front-line fighters to its credit. Like it or not, that will bias the competition toward them.
Northrup Grumman has been very quiet about their T-X entrant. This photo is from a tweet by @David_Kern during a taxi test at Mohave. It looks like Northrup Grumman used Scaled Composites (their subsidiary) to build the aircraft, which is a good sign in my book. Some commenters online noticed that the aircraft bears a striking resemblance to the existing T-38. In a way, that isn't a bad idea. The T-38 really has served well and a version with updated systems, made of cutting-edge composites, with an efficient single engine would be a great way to go. It seems like Northrop should start with at least a couple bonus points in the competition since they won the last iteration of this contest...and their winning aircraft lasted more than 50 years.
Although it looks like, unfortunately, the Textron AirLand Scorpion won't be entered in this contest, I think it's at least worth mentioning. When Textron (partnered with AirLand) unveiled the Scorpion in September 2013, it was a complete surprise. It hadn't been requested or specified...they decided to pursue the project on their own. The aircraft could definitely fill the OA-X/LAAR role that I mentioned earlier and Textron AirLand is hoping to find a launch customer soon. However, the aircraft also seems well-suited to the T-X role. I saw some discussion that a version with a single engine and a different wing was considered for the T-X contest, but it appears that the USAF's T-X specifications would demand a little too much for the existing design. It's too bad. Cessna's T-37 Tweet was an outstanding trainer in many respects. When Textron bought Beechcraft in 2014, it became the proud owner of both the T-6A and the T-1A. It would be impressive feat if Textron could secure the T-X contract and become the sole provider of fixed-wing training aircraft for the USAF.

I wouldn't be completely surprised if Textron came up with something to enter in the T-X contest anyway. They've been increasingly good at thinking out of the box over the past few years. We knew that they'd been working on a turboprop single, but the Cessna Denali was more than I was expecting from them. They bought Columbia Aircraft and have embraced the TTx as their flagship piston single. They also surprised us with the Scorpion. I hope they'll come up with something to compete for the T-X program. Cessna makes great trainers and something based on the Scorpion airframe could help them sell the tactical version as a step-up from the trainer version.

So there you have it. These four (or maybe five) aircraft will compete to become the new T-X. I hope the USAF has the good sense to let us watch the competition more closely than others in the past. At the very least, I hope they mount a few GoPros in each aircraft and post some videos of them flying. It looks like it'll be a competition worth watching.