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Second Lt. Duston Obrien, 435th Fighter Training Squadron upgrade pilot, and Maj. Gavin Peterson, 435th FTS instructor pilot, prepare to take off in a T-38 Talon at JBSA-Randolph, Texas, Sept. 3, 2015. Air Force photo by SrA. Stormy Archer.

The Air Force released the final request for proposals for the T-X advanced pilot trainer on Dec. 30, launching a competition that is expected to pit a half-dozen major contractors against one another for a contract worth in excess of $16.3 billion. The award, expected in 2017, would be for 350 jets and a ground-based training system to replace the T-38 fleet. The RFP differed only very slightly from the draft, published in July, and those changes were “largely administrative,” a service official said. The Air Force wants initial operational capability in 2024 or sooner.

According to the RFP, the award will cover development and production of the first five aircraft, plus mission planning systems, ground support gear, and initial spares. The first two lots of production jets would be at a low rate, followed by nine more lots at full rate, likely to be about 37 jets per year. “T-X is a program we’ve got to get right,” Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in an accompanying statement. “In terms of providing realistic, holistic training and reducing flying hours on fifth-generation platforms.”

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said the T-X will be a pathfinder program under her “Bending the Cost Curve” initiative, and the RFP was based on “extensive dialogue with industry,” presumably to prevent confusion and avoid the delay of a protest. In keeping with the Pentagon’s “Better Buying Power” guidelines, the program will offer strong incentives for meeting the Air Force’s ambitious timeline as well as credit against unit price for exceeding threshold requirements in sustained G and turn-around time. The government also expects to obtain technical data rights for competitive award of future modifications and upgrades.

Boeing/SAAB, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada/Turkish Aerospace are offering new-design aircraft for the competition, while Lockheed Martin is offering the T-50A variant of the Korean Aerospace T-50 trainer and Raytheon is bidding the T-100 variant of the Leonardo (formerly Alenia Aermacchi) M346 Master. Textron is reported to be considering offering a modified version of its “Scorpion” jet—which in its present configuration doesn’t meet USAF’s G-loading requirements—and service officials suggested that other, “surprise” offerors may join the contest. Though Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon have publicly displayed their candidates, Northrop Grumman has kept its contender under wraps. Images of a new T-38-like jet taxiing at Mojave Airport, Calif, are reported to be of the Northrop T-X, but a senior company official told Air Force Magazine in December that “the plane you saw out there may not be the final version” of the company’s entry.