The United States’ next trainer plane could be built on foreign soil.
A major defense contract for the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Pilot Training competition, known as the T-X Trainer, is scheduled to be decided by the end of 2017, and the price tag attached to the contract weighs in at a whopping $16 billion.
The Air Force is looking to replace their aging fleet of trainers, consisting of Northrop Grumman’s T-38 Talons, which have been in service since the early 1960’s. Experts say they don’t expect the T-38’s to last past 2030.
The Air Force is planning to purchase 350 jet trainers, which would be used to teach new pilots to fly fighters like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and they want those planes ready by 2024.
Several companies threw their hat into the ring when the contract was first announced, but as the field continues to shorten, just three teams are left vying for the contract: Lockheed Martin, partnered with Korea Aerospace Industries; Boeing, partnered with Saab; and Italian contractor Leonardo, partnered with its own U.S. subsidiary DRS Technologies. Raytheon and Northrop Grumman both dropped out over the past few months.
Lockheed has offered up their T-50A, which is an upgraded version of the T-50 Golden Eagle that South Korean pilots currently train in.
Boeing has built a “Clean-Sheet” T-X trainer specifically to meet the Air Force’s contract specifications.
Leonardo is proposing its T-100, a trainer already teaching F-35 pilots how to fly in Israel and Italy.
And while the U.S. deals with budget constraints and a focus on the financials inside the Pentagon, the competition has turned into a war of seeing who can put for the lowest price.
Leonardo believes it has the lowest cost bid for the program, and Mayor Tony Haygood has said that Leonardo DRS will build its T-100 trainer jet in Tuskegee, Alabama if it wins the bid, which could mean a $250 million investment for Macon County and more than 750 jobs.
Boeing’s new model took flight from St. Louis in December 2016, where the team that developed and built the trainer is based. St. Louis also announced that they would be moving 500 jobs from California to St. Louis last month, pushing them to roughly 15,000 employees in the St. Louis area. However, there has been no comment that St. Louis would, in fact, be the production site.
The T-50 Golden Eagle from Lockheed Martin is built in Korea and has been in service in South Korea since 2007.
The contract is expected to be awarded at the end of this year.