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​The T-X is expected to be the last big USAF airplane contract awarded for about the next seven years. Boeing photo.

​The Air Force on Thursday awarded the team of Boeing and Saab of Sweden the long-awaited contract to replace the nearly 60-year-old T-38 Talon trainer. In winning the T-X contract, Boeing overcame doubts about its performance on the KC-46 program and apparently convinced the Pentagon that new manufacturing techniques will save billions of dollars.

The $9.2 billion contract for up to 475 new advanced trainers and 46 simulators is a far cry from USAF’s “original service cost estimate” of “$19.7 billion for 351 aircraft,” it said in a press release.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the program will “save at least $10 billion” versus original service estimates, although more recently those estimates had been lowered to around $16 billion. The T-38 Talon will continue to serve until the Air Force buys out the full complement of T-X aircraft; the service has not yet identified what nomenclature the new trainer will carry.

The T-X is expected to be the last big Air Force airplane contract awarded for roughly the next seven years, with the recent demise of the JSTARS Recap program.

At a Pentagon press conference, USAF acquisition chief Will Roper explained that the contract “will allow us to buy more” airplanes in years when the Air Force might like “to go faster” in acquiring the aircraft. It permits USAF “to have the option to buy earlier if we need to,” he said.

The $9.2 billion covers all potential 475 airplanes, but “our requirement is for 351,” Roper said, and so the contract value may be considerably lower. It does not address any requirements beyond the need for advanced trainers, such as Aggressor jets or companion trainers for bombers.

Given Boeing’s problems with delivering the KC-46 tanker on time—and that it has eaten $3.5 billion in overruns on the program—Roper was asked why USAF has confidence the company can deliver the T-X at such an aggressive price.

“Every program is different,” he answered. “We evaluate them based on the merits of the proposal,” in the arenas of technical merits, cost, and risk. He said a key factor in achieving such a low cost on T-X was “early engagement, early dialog with industry” to explain “exactly” what the service wanted, as well as to get a firm sense of what industry was capable of delivering. The Air Force explained precisely what added capabilities it would and would not value, he said, “and what you’re seeing is the benefit of fierce competition.” He added that “there’s no way to recreate it if it’s not in the program, and we’re the beneficiaries of it.”

The effort now will be to work with Boeing “to make sure we leave [engineering and manufacturing development] well, that we’re tackling risk up front so that when we move into production we do so with high confidence.” The risk of a clean sheet design was judged against other factors with the result that the Boeing proposal was the “best value to the government,” Roper said.

Asked if Boeing’s “Black Diamond” advanced manufacturing techniques proved persuasive, top USAF uniformed acquisition official Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, flanking Roper, said, “We won’t speculate on how industry did it.” He also noted that the Air Force required flight data from the proposing companies. Boeing and its principal competitors all submitted real-world flight data on prototype jets. Extra points were awarded to vendors who offered angle of attack and high-G performance above stated requirements, Roper said. 

Roper declined to say whether the Boeing bid was close to or far below that of the other efferors. Lockheed Martin and Leonardo were the other main competitors for the T-X.

Roper asserted that the contract succeeded by “making sure we’re not requiring something that pushes technology readiness levels to where they’re not suitable. So, a high-tech design that can be competed broadly [is a] great formula for getting cost reduced.” He added, “this one hit all the marks: clear evaluation requirement [and] evaluation criteria. … Not taking technologies up too high, not setting the bar too low. We checked all the boxes, and when you see the savings that we’re going to be able to realize, that, too, is a success.”

Another reason for the huge disparity between the Air Force’s estimate and the winning bid, Roper said, is that the acquisition system tends to compel the service to look “backwards … at historicals,” while industry tends to look “look ahead, to improve things” in terms of new technologies.

The first production milestone will be in 2023, when the Air Force wants to achieve Required Assets Available with “one squadron of aircraft” and the associated simulators, Roper noted. Initial Operational Capability is planned for 2024.

Bunch said the T-X, from the beginning, was intended to be a highly transparent competition, featuring frequent dialog with industry. He said he didn’t want any drafts of the requests for proposals to be “a pop quiz.”

Asked if they expect a protest, Roper simply said the Air Force acquisition office has “an excellent legal team” and, given the transparency of the program and the frequent opportunities for industry to raise issues or complain, “If we do have a protest, we can get through it quickly.”

Boeing, in a Twitter message, said it was “honored and excited” to get the work. Calls to Lockheed Martin and Leonardo were not immediately returned.

The initial sum of the award is for $813 million, covering engineering, manufacturing, and development of the first five aircraft and seven simulators.

"This new aircraft will provide the advanced training capabilities we need to increase the lethality and effectiveness of future Air Force pilots," Wilson said in her statement.

JBSA-Randolph, Texas, is slated to receive the first new trainer in 2023, though all undergraduate pilot training bases will eventually transition from the T-38 to the T-8.

Boeing and Saab’s clean sheet approach ran counter to what other contractors proposed, given that the Air Force initially expressed a preference for an off-the-shelf design. Boeing touted its aircraft as making use of advanced manufacturing techniques, which it promised would yield dramatic savings in unit cost, along with the use of proven components, such as the F-16 main landing gear. It also said it designed the aircraft to have very low maintenance costs. Boeing claimed the savings would more than offset the risk of an all-new design and the requisite flight-testing and development required.

Boeing’s cockpit features a stadium-style stepped arrangement, which allows the backseat pilot instructor to see over the head of the front-seat student or pilot, in an arrangement not unlike that in the T-38. The aircraft will be able to simulate sensor functions like radar and infrared search-and-track, even though those sensors won’t actually be on the aircraft. It will also be able to simulate weapon functions and release in-flight.

Boeing has announced it will build the T-X at its St. Louis, Mo., facilities, where it has previously built the F-15 and Navy F/A-18. Without T-X work, Boeing officials have said the company might close down its St. Louis manufacturing operations, and that a loss on T-X might spell its exit from the small military airplane business.

Asked if industrial base considerations had affected the T-X award in any way, Bunch said, simply, “no.”

Vice President Mike Pence may have telegraphed Boeing’s win by having his picture taken with a full-scale mockup of the airplane at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber conference earlier this month.

The win comes on the heels of Boeing winning the Air Force’s UH-1N utility helicopter competition earlier this month. Industry analysts said Boeing bid “aggressively” for that contract, and Wilson said USAF would save $1.7 billion on that program. The Air Force expected to pay about $4.1 billion for the UH-1N replacement, but Boeing’s bid was $2.38 billion.

Roper said the same principals that delivered a low cost on the T-X were also applied on the UH-1N replacement contract.

Boeing has acknowledged low-balling its bid for the KC-46, saying the volume the contract would create for its aerial freighter business as well as prospective foreign sales of the tanker would ultimately make up for its losses on the program. To date, Boeing has absorbed more than $3 billion in losses on the fixed-price KC-46 project.

In a statement, USAF chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said the program is “all about joint warfighting excellence; we need the T-X to optimize training for pilots heading into our growing fleet of fifth-generation aircraft.” The T-X will “enable pilot training in a system similar to our fielded fighters, ultimately enhancing joint lethality.”