Boeing Makes Its Case For Building The Air Force's Hotly Contested T-X Trainer
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Two trainers that Boeing built for the T-X competition fly over St. Louis, the city where the company says it will assemble the planes if it wins this summer’s award.
An Air Force T-38 training jet crashed in Mississippi on Wednesday. Both pilots ejected safely, but with Memorial Day fast approaching, the crash is a reminder that military service involves dangers seldom encountered in civilian life — even when warfighters are not operating near hostile forces.
The Air Force’s fleet of 430 T-38 trainers arguably is more dangerous than it needs to be. The planes debuted as the world’s first supersonic trainer in 1961, and they have been flying ever since. The last one was built in 1972. So the T-38s are old, and many will need to keep flying for decades to come. The reason is that military modernization budgets were starved during the Obama years, and the Air Force had to delay buying better trainers.
The Air Force now has a competition going to decide which of three industry teams should supply it with 350 new training aircraft plus high-fidelity ground simulators. The program is called T-X, and it was conceived to replace the T-38 in the role of training fighter and bomber pilots. The number of planes needed may increase if the Air Force elects to shift tanker and transport training to the new plane as well.
What I’d like to discuss here is how Boeing, leader of one of the three teams pursuing T-X, has positioned itself to win the award. It is competing against mature aircraft being offered by a Lockheed Martin team and a Leonardo DRS team (DRS is the U.S. subsidiary of the big Italian arms maker).
The $16 billion T-X program bulks larger on Boeing’s radar screen than you might think, because its corporate strategy requires sustaining an extensive military business to balance the ups and downs of the commercial transport market. Having lost competitions to build the Air Force’s next-generation fighter and bomber, Boeing is straining to win whatever other “things with wings” the service decides to develop — such as a new aerial-refueling tanker the company is developing. The Air Force historically has been Boeing’s biggest customer.
But the competition for T-X is stiff, requiring some imagination on the part of Boeing engineers and marketers to set their offering apart from those of the other teams. What follows is an explanation of how they decided to approach the challenge.
I need to note up front that I have ties to all three teams. Each of the team leaders contributes to my think tank, and in addition Boeing’s two rivals for T-X are both consulting clients. So you can be sure I’m not going suggest here who has the better trainer solution. But since I am not privy to any proprietary information at Boeing, I’d like to take a stab at explaining how the company has positioned itself to win an award that the Air Force says it will announce sometime this summer.
As I noted earlier, the T-38 is old. So old, in fact, that it can’t support many of the advanced training tasks required of fledgling fighter pilots — despite having been repeatedly upgraded. So the Air Force’s goal, first and foremost, is to field a trainer with state-of-the-art performance. But the plane also needs to be affordable, because the service will be buying a new fighter, bomber and tanker at the same time it is buying T-X, and the T-38 has become expensive to keep airworthy as it has aged.
So the Air Force’s mantra for the T-X competition is, “give me a better trained pilot at a lower cost.” Picking the right solution, though, is a complicated matter. There are actually a hundred requirements that offerors must satisfy. The criteria for selecting a winner are arranged into four categories: (1) performance, (2) risk, (3) cost and (4) capabilities above requirement. The last category is a catchall for features worthy of extra credit in the scoring process even if they are not absolutely required, like being able to pull extra “Gs” in turns.
The first thing Boeing had to decide in addressing these criteria was whether it would offer an off-the-self system like Lockheed and Leonardo, or develop a new system. After reviewing off-the-shelf options, it elected to develop an all-new plane and ground simulation architecture for the T-X competition. The phrase Boeing uses in describing its offering is “purpose built,” meaning that its solution is an exact match for the requirements the Air Force has set forth (it says the Air Force has been transparent in describing service needs).
Now, the danger in offering a new plane is that it doesn’t have the track record of the other two offerings. Lockheed Martin’s T-50, for instance, began flying in 2002, so it is a well-understood airframe. Boeing’s plane flew for the first time in late 2016. But the way Boeing figures it, the Lockheed and Leonardo offerings will need to be modified for the T-X competition, which entails risks, whereas the Boeing plane began its life already reflecting T-X requirements.
Having made the decision to offer a clean-sheet design, Boeing then elected to develop a highly flexible, open-architecture system that could be readily adapted to changing requirements in the future. To take one example, Boeing’s plane can accommodate pilots of any shape or size without modification. The Air Force probably wasn’t thinking about pilot shortages when it laid out the requirements for T-X, but Boeing has. If the service needs to draw pilots from a broader demographic, or train foreign pilots of diverse dimensions, Boeing’s design is ready.
A key feature of the Boeing approach was to extend its emphasis on adaptability beyond the airframe into the ground simulation equipment. Having built most of the jetliners currently in operation around the world, Boeing had a great deal of experience with training pilots. It has applied that experience to configuring sophisticated ground training aids digitally connected to its T-X airframe. It hasn’t disclosed who is developing its simulation software, but it seems pretty confident that the ground training experience will feel exactly like flying a fighter.
I can’t say how Boeing is approaching the question of cost, which may prove to be the pivotal factor in determining who wins the award. Boeing’s nightmare scenario is that it will experience a repeat of the recent tanker competition, in which it was forced to bid aggressively against a subsidized foreign plane maker. Lockheed Martin’s entry was developed in cooperation with South Korea and Leonardo DRS has extensive ties in Rome, so that possibility can’t be dismissed. Common sense suggests Boeing will offer a highly competitive price.
However, the foreign dimensions of the T-X competition are a double-edged sword for all the offerors because this is, after all, the Trump era. Each of the teams has international partners, with Boeing having elected to partner with Sweden’s Saab. There is nothing in the Air Force’s selection criteria that would assign value to domestic sourcing of parts or technology. Nonetheless, Boeing has pushed to assure that well over 90% of the content in its T-X solution will be of American origin — a claim the other offerors probably can’t make.
If it wins, Boeing plans to assemble its T-X airframe in Saint Louis — a place that could definitely use the 1,800 jobs the company says will result. Lockheed Martin would assemble at a plant it already owns in Greenville, South Carolina, and Leonardo DRS would assemble at Tuskegee, Alabama. But when all the component parts and production inputs are counted, Boeing will likely have a significant edge in U.S. content. Saab says it will move its own T-X production activities to the U.S. if Boeing’s team wins the award.
There’s no way of knowing whether that factor will have any impact on the outcome of the T-X competition, but America’s biggest aerospace company isn’t taking any chances. It has worked hard to be responsive to Air Force requirements, and to be in step with the current political climate. This summer’s award will provide a telling indication of whether it understands what the current bidding environment for major military programs demands of contractors.