Kind RegardsDue to its many competing budgetary priorities, the US Air Force may not have the funds to procure its prospective T-X jet trainer, which the service hopes will one day replace its vintage Northrop T-38 Talons. But the difficulties may be further compounded by a Congressional sequestration maoneuvre that will automatically cut US defense outlays by 10% every year for 10 years beginning on 1 March unless a deal is reached to stop it.
"That's been our challenge for some time now," says Gen Edward Rice, commander of the USAF's Air Education and Training Command, speaking at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida. "I think we've been open and clear about our challenges in finding the money to pay for it given all the other recapitalisation needs of the air force."
Sequestration would add an additional dimension to those challenges on top of the already difficult financial straits the USAF finds itself in. Without a definable top line number for the USAF's budget, it is very difficult fit a new procurement into the service's shopping list. "Sequestration is another element that's in play with respect to our budgets," Rice says.
Asked if he still expects that the T-X would achieve initial operational capability in 2020, Rice says: "That's not something I'm thinking about."
Part of the reason is because the USAF can live with the T-38 for the time being. But, the question is for how long, Rice says. Though the venerable T-38 is in no imminent danger of falling out of the sky, as time goes by, Rice says it becomes less effective at preparing new pilots to fly fifth-generation fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35.
The USAF is already training prospective F-22 pilots on the T-38, but those students have to undertake an eight-flight "bridge course" in the Lockheed F-16, Rice says. But as the number of F-35s in the USAF arsenal grows, using F-16s to train those pilots becomes impractical because there simply are not enough of those jets to train that many students. "I can't produce enough F-16 pilots today for the air force," Rice says. "I can't afford to get into a situation where I've got to use F-16s in large numbers to train into the F-35."
The USAF needs to finds a way to train F-35 pilots that does not involve F-16s, Rice says. "That has to be part of the calculus with T-X," he adds. Potential candidates for a contest include the Alenia Aermacchi/General Dynamics T-100 - a version of the T-346, BAE Systems/Northrop Grumman Hawk and the Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed T-50, plus a potential new design from Boeing.