Why Boeing's T-7 Red Hawk Trainer Is Shaping Up To Be A Breakthrough Success For The U.S. Air Force
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When the U.S. Air Force awarded Boeing the contract for its next-generation training system in 2018, many observers were amazed at the low price. The service had estimated that it would cost nearly $20 billion to develop and produce 351 aircraft plus simulators and ground training aids, but Boeing agreed to do it for less than half that amount.
Air Force acquisition and technology chief Dr. Will Roper attributed the low cost to fierce competition, which certainly played a part in getting offerors to sharpen their pencils. But if you look inside the T-7 program, it is apparent that something more is going on here. Boeing and teammate Saab aren’t just developing a training system, they are fashioning what amounts to a prototype for the digital engineering revolution that Roper has made a top Air Force priority.
I know all this because Boeing contributes to my think tank and earlier this week, at my request, gave me a briefing on the program. T-7, recently designated the Red Hawk, breaks the mold on how aircraft are developed, produced, integrated into a family of systems, and affordably sustained. Thanks in part to its readily reconfigurable “glass” cockpit, T-7 is by far the most flexible, versatile training system that any military service has ever fielded.
That’s a good thing because it will play a central role in training the next generation of pilots who fly “fifth generation” fighters and bombers—combat aircraft with unprecedented survivability and situational awareness. It may also eventually be used to train pilots of aerial-refueling tankers and transports, and naval pilots flying off aircraft carriers.
So there’s a lot going on here, and it appears to be unfolding smoothly—a testament to the virtues of digital engineering and open architecture design. Here are five reasons why T-7 is shaping up to be a breakthrough success for the U.S. Air Force.
T-7 is a long overdue successor to Cold War trainers. The Air Force has been flying the same jet trainer for 60 years. Called the T-38 Talon, it was the world’s first supersonic trainer at its debut, but now it is a relic of another time. Despite upgrades to its onboard electronics, the existing trainer suffers from all the usual maladies of aged aircraft—metal fatigue, corrosion, parts obsolescence, etc. What the Air Force needed was a new training system, not just a plane, that would catapult young pilots into the age of digital technology. T-7 does that with a training system that can be easily adjusted to mimic the displays and handling qualities of every fighter and bomber in the Air Force fleet.
T-7 is precisely on track with its planned development schedule. There have been rumors of late that T-7 might be delayed, but Boeing and Air Force officials have confirmed to me that the program faces no problems. Boeing says it is “absolutely confident” in the development effort, and that the training system will be produced and tested on time to enable initial deliveries in 2023, as contracted. The production-representative prototypes that Boeing designed and flew in only three years have transitioned smoothly to the advanced development phase that is a prelude to testing and delivery. The company sees no show-stoppers or challenges that will slow the program’s progress.
T-7 is a revolutionary approach to developing military aircraft. Air Force tech guru Roper has been pressing a transformation in the way military planes are developed that he says is made possible by open system architectures, rapid software development, and digital engineering. Roper says the T-7 program closely approximates what he has in mind. Using an engineering approach based on 3-D models, Boeing has wrapped every facet of the T-7 effort in a digital web that exactly describes the airframe down to its individual parts. When a change is made by engineers, it is instantly assimilated into simulators and training aids, ending the longstanding problem of simulators lagging behind cockpit features. More importantly, the digital web updates production plans, maintenance procedures and every other facet of the system so that the entire team shares the same detailed vision of the program in which it is engaged.
T-7 is cheap to build and maintain. Boeing has added proprietary features to T-7’s digitally-enabled engineering system that reduce the need for touch labor in assembly. The plane is so much cheaper to build than legacy aircraft that the Air Force has said it might buy up to 475 trainers rather than its stated requirement of 351 without exceeding the $9.2 billion face value of the contract. The savings continue once the plane is operational, because it has 80% commonality with aircraft already in the joint fleet, and has been designed to facilitate maintenance. The ejection seats can be switched out in 15 minutes, and the General Electric F404 engine (also used on Saab’s Gripen) can be replaced in 90 minutes using a few simple tools.
T-7 could eventually yield over 2,000 aircraft. Boeing priced its bid on the training system with an eye to diverse ways in which the T-7 airframe might be employed by the Air Force and other military services—including those of allied nations. The various digital features of the plane and its commonality with other aircraft types would facilitate using the same aircraft as a naval trainer, an aggressor aircraft in exercises, a light attack plane or even a fighter. At the moment Boeing’s team is focused entirely on making the training system work for the Air Force, but down the road it sees the possibility of many other uses for customers around the world.
The low cost and functional flexibility of the T-7 system underscore how military innovations might help U.S. commercial aerospace enterprises stay competitive in the global market. Just as commercial insights have informed how Boeing developed the T-7, so new ideas applied in the training system will have potential relevance for companies developing civil aircraft. This is part of what Dr. Roper apparently has in mind by pressing a transformation of the aircraft industry, and it looks highly complementary to the industrial policies of the Trump administration.
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