A Boeing-Saab partnership has won a $9.2 billion contract in the T-X competition to produce the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation training jet.
Boeing’s award for the T-X trainer program marks the third major victory by the company in about a month. Coming fast after the award for the Air Force Huey replacement and the selection by the U.S. Navy to build the MQ-25, Boeing’s latest victory, in the three-way T-X competition, completes a dramatic shift for Boeing’s once-imperiled St. Louis factory complex and establishes the manufacturer as a new global competitor in the training market.
What a month for Boeing and its partners! Let’s take a look at the course of events.
First, in Aug. 30, Boeing has seized the Navy’s MQ-25 tanker drone contract, worth $805 million (first phase), to build the first four MQ-25 unmanned tankers. This covers the design, development, fabrication, test and delivery of four Stingray aircraft, a program the service expects will cost about $13 billion overall for 72 aircraft. The first payment includes the integration of the drone into the carrier air wing for an initial operational capability by 2024.
The Navy has followed a long and complicated road in trying to develop a UAS that would fly on and off its aircraft carriers. The program UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike), as a surveillance and strike asset, was canceled in 2016. The effort to field a carrier drone was reborn that year as an unmanned tanker that could double the range of the carrier air wing.
Oh! By the way, did you know the reason why the US Navy initially wanted an unmanned tanker? Why does the Navy want to extend the range of its aircraft so badly? Because the service has become concerned about the range of its fighters due to its adversaries such as China and Russia, which have developed anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles which could force carriers to keep their distance from the battlespace!
Second, in Sept. 24, a Boeing-Leonardo team has won a $2.38 billion contract to manufacture a new batch of helicopters to replace the Air Force’s UH-1N Huey used to guard the service’s nuclear missile silos. The new fleet of MH-139, a militarized version of the commercial AW139, in addition to supporting the service’s nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile bases in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, will be used for training, test and operational support airlift missions.
Boeing will receive an initial $375 million for the first four helicopters and the integration of military-specific items needed to bring the AW139 to the Air Force’s requirements. It plans on buying 84 new helicopters over the course of the program, with the first aircraft being delivered in 2021.
Boeing and Leonardo’s MH-139, which will be manufactured by Leonardo subsidiary AgustaWestland in Philadelphia, outbid Lockheed Martin Sikorsky’s HH-60U Black Hawk and Sierra Nevada's Force Hawk, an upgraded UH-60L Black Hawk — which some analysts saw as the service’s aircraft of choice going into the competition.
As said, the MH-139 will be a missionized version of the Leonardo AW139. Leonardo produces civil versions in Italy and in Russia, but also in Philadelphia. It is only the third non-U.S.-designed helicopter to win a Pentagon competition. There are more than 900 AW139s in service among 270 governments, military services and companies globally, with 260 assembled and delivered from Philadelphia over the past 10 years.
Finally, on September 27, the US Air Force awarded Boeing Defense and Saab a contract for the production of 351 T-X trainer jets, 46 simulators and associated ground equipment. It is to be noted that the contract is an indefinite-delivery and indefinite-quantity award, allowing the USAF to purchase up to 475 aircraft and 120 simulators, with possibly more in the international market. An initial delivery order for $813 million provides for the engineering and manufacturing development of the first five aircraft and seven simulators.
The duo defeated rival proposals based on the Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries T-50A and Leonardo T-100, a derivative of the Italian-built M346.
Long story short, when the Air Force finally returned to a T-X replacement program about six years ago after cancelling the previous one, Boeing quickly decided to develop a clean-sheet option. In 2013, the company announced a collaboration with Saab to build and produce an advanced trainer prototype for the Air Force.
More than 90 percent of the twin-canted tails single engine (GE Aviation F404) is planned to be manufactured in the USA. Saab will produce the aft fuselage and some subsystems.
The Air Force T-X trainers will replace the 57-year-old fleet of Northrop T-38C Talons and it may only represent the beginning. In addition, a pending U.S. Navy should put out a requirement for a Boeing T-45 replacement. Experts also estimate a potential export market of 200-300 additional aircraft sales for the T-X winner.
Initial operating capability of the T-X trainers is planned by the end of 2024 when the first squadron and its associated simulators are all available for training. Full operational capability is projected for 2034.
The new trainer cannot come too soon for the service as it grapples with using its aging T-38 Talons. A crash followed another trainer mishap in Texas on Sept. 11. In that incident, a T-38C from Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, crashed after takeoff. Two other T-38s have crashed this calendar year. Last November, total hydraulic failure in a T-38 from Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, caused that aircraft to crash. The accident killed Capt. Paul J. Barbour, 32, who was on a requalification flight that day.
In the end, those 3 major contracts spell “Major Year” for Boeing.