Thursday, June 24, 2010

T-38 Talon - Replacement Finally On The Horizon?

The T-38 has been the USAF's advanced pilot training aircraft since the late '50s. Generations of military pilots have trained in these aircraft. My father, who left the USAF in 1965, learned the figher pilot trade in and later instructed in the T-38.

Most of the 450 or so T-38s remaining in service have just gone through a major update/upgrade, and are now referred to as T-38C. T-38s were manufactured by Northrup from 1959 to 1970. The majority of those still flying were built in 1966, 67, and 68, making the average age of a front line T-38 about 45 years old.

T-38A 68-8139, 7FS 49FW, based and photographed at Holloman AFB. These black jets were used for pilot proficiency and chase plane duties when the 49th was equipped with the F-117A Stealth Fighter.

The T-38C update will keep these aircraft in the air for another decade, if necessary.

The USAF has started the replacement process, finally. In a few months, a contest will be announced for designs and bids to produce the esimated 350 training aircraft deemed necessary to replace the T-38. The winning aircraft could garner as many as 1000 ordered, depending upon foreign customers and possible variations of the basic aircraft (such as a light strike platform).

The competitors appear to be:

Northrup - which is anticipated to offer a further upgrade/life extension program for the existing T-38 airframes.

Korean Air Industries/Lockheed-Martin - this partnership produced the Korean produced T-50 trainer, currently only in use by the South Korean Air Force.

Alenia Aermacchi - expected to offer a derivative of their M-346 trainer, currently in use by the Italian Air Force and others as both a trainer and light strike aircraft.

BAE Systems - which will offer a version of their Hawk training/light strike aircraft, used in the UK, US (Navy), and multiple Air Forces around the world.

Boeing - which is being very quiet about what it will offer, but is thought to be a new design purpose built for the application.

It is expected that some of these companies may team up to push an offering, with Alenia (Italy) and BAE (UK) seeking a US partner, either Northrup or Boeing. A cooperative effort would be stronger in many aspects.

Northrup has experience, in that they are the designers. makers, and maintainers of the current T-38 fleet. The last complete aircraft they produced, however, was the B-2 - very different technology and requirements, and production wrapped up over 15 years ago.

Alenia has worldwide experience with their MB platform, but very limited US experience - and that experience has been with the very limited use of the C-27 medium transport aircraft by the USAF. They would have to be considered an outsider.

BAE has a strong hand. The Hawk platform has dozens of customers worldwide, the most important of which (for this situation) the US Navy, which operates close to 300 of them. These aircraft, called T-45, were built in the US, and are highly modified examples of the main design. The mods were necessary to make the aircraft suitable for use on aircraft carriers. If BAE is chosen, the aircraft would likely be built through their partnership with Boeing, the same way the T-45 was produced.

Boeing, by itself, would have a hard time pushing a brand new aircraft to fill the need. With the spiralling costs and mismanagement seen in the F-22 and F-35 programs, Congress is not going to be in the mood to purchase billions of dollars worth of new, unproven designs when existing aircraft can be used with minimal program risk.

KAI/L-M's big advantage is that Lockheed is the manufacturer of the only two fighter aircraft that will be left in the inventory by the time the new trainer reaches operational capability - the F-22 and the F-35. L-M's familiarity with those aircraft would allow them to claim the knowledge necessary to build a trainer that would lead into the -22 and -35 seamlessly. There is a big drawback in that approach; since L-M has so much of the USAF's business, the Air Force and Congress may decide that the new contract needs to go to someone else.

No matter what design is chosen for the future requirement, it is certain that we will continue to see this sleek little jet flying around for many years to come.

T-38A 70-1955, assigned to the 81FTW, based at Williams AFB. Seen landing at NAS Dallas in 1988. This was the second to last T-38 built.

T-38C 64-13225 of the 25FTS, 71FTW, leads other T-38s from the 90FTS, 80FTW (EN) and 50FTS, 14FTW (CB) on the ramp during 2009.

All photos by your truly.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

USAF Initiates Drone Pilot Training Track

Finally recognizing that using fully trained aircraft pilots to sit in comfy chairs to remotely pilot drones was not the best decision, the USAF has settled on training 'unmanned aerial system' operators specifically to do that mission.

Taking fully qualified pilots to do this job was bad for multiple reasons, but the two biggest were cost (it costs over a million dollars to train an actual pilot), and morale problems (taking a real pilot and dropping him into a trailer to run a flying lawnmower through a video screen was a real hit to the ego, and a career ender).

Five test classes were put through training beginning in 2009, to establish and fine tune the curriculum. Graduates of the first class are now 'flying' operational missions. The second class just graduated, and will soon become operational.

The USAF has a stated need of 1100 drone pilots and operations officers by 2012. Establishing this as a seperate career path from pilot training is smart - saves money, and helps calm down the morale problems.

It will be interesting to me to see if the graduates of this new career path are awarded wings, and if they'll wear flight suits to work.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

F-35 Costs Spiralling Out of Control

The latest cost projections from independent Pentagon analyists are placing the cost of the F-35 program, for the current number of airplanes projected, at $382 Billion.

This is 65% higher than the original cost projection of $232 Billion, posted in 2002.

The production cost per plane has risen to $92.4 Million, 85% higher than the original projection of $50 Million.

The total cost per plane, including R&D charges, is sitting at $112.4 Million, 81% higher than the original projection of $62 Million.

This is the incredible danger of our government signing 'cost plus' procurement contracts - contracts which guarantee the contractor(s) a percentage of profit no matter what the cost turns out to be. Such contracts give no incentive for the contractor to hold down costs - anything they can push into the program and bill for, they will.

I guarantee that if the US government had signed a fixed cost contract with Lockheed-Martin for the F-35, it would have come in at projected costs. Companies have a way of figuring out how to keep programs on track and on budget when their bottom line depends on it.

The new estimate of $382 follows by two months an estimate released by the F-35 program office in the Pentagon of $328 Billion.

The Congressional Budget Office released a report on May 28 suggesting that the Navy scale back on its planned purchase of F-35C carrier based variants, reducing its order by 93 aircraft. The resulting savings could be spent procurring an additonal 126 F-18 Super Hornets. The Super Hornet is a known design in service, orders could be placed and production started now. A difference of 33 aircraft may not sound like much, but that is the equivalent of 3 full strength Navy Fighter Squadrons. With the dire straits the Navy's legacy Hornet (F-18A/B/C/D) fleet finds itself in, additional Super Hornets could help bridge the Navy's fighter gap - a gap which has lengthened, since the Navy has pushed projected IOC for the F-35C from 2014 back to 2016.

A bad result from a cut in F-35C production is that it will drive the per plane cost up for everyone else, potentially causing even more production cuts.

The percentage of increase will automatically bring the program up for review by Congress, under the Nunn-McCurdy law. That stipulates that any project which exceeds its original budget numbers by more than 50% must be represented to Congress to justify the expense. Congress may take no action, but the law gives it the right to cancel the program outright.

The F-35 is rapidly becomming another F-22. It will be procured in far fewer numbers than were planned, due to the tremendous cost overruns. This will result in a much less combat effective force, and a fighter gap that we will not be able to overcome.

F-35 photo shamelessly ripped off from Outlaw13 ....