The United States Air Force is at a crossroads with respect to its key training aircraft. For the last fifty years, it has relied upon the venerable T-38 Talon to train the vast majority of its pilots. While a half century-plus service life is impressive, it is also an unmistakable sign that the service needs to modernize its training enterprise.
This need, and how the Air Force responds to it, has significant implications for pilot recruiting, training, national security, and the defense budget. In other words, it will affect all Americans for decades to come.
Accordingly, it was a noteworthy event when Air Force acquisition officials released a request for proposal (RFP) at the end of 2016—the formal kick off of the competition to replace the T-38. The program is envisioned as a multi-year effort to procure roughly 350 aircraft that will be used over the next 40+ years to train Air Force pilots in basic airmanship and develop fighter pilots basic skills. It is worth nearly $50 billion over its projected lifetime. Whoever wins this contest will be entrusted with building a system to train future combat airmen for decades into the future. However, this is far from a simple decision and there are several key factors acquisition officials must consider when seeking the best option.
First, the Air Force needs an information-age training system. When the T-38 prototype first flew in 1956, it was built in an era where mechanical processes were the backbone of aviation. While computers existed, they were primitive by today’s standards—filling entire rooms and capable of executing only basic tasks. Today’s airmen fly aircraft that are products of the information age. Their ability to gather, process, and disseminate information in a collaborative fashion is just as important as capacity to shoot down an enemy aircraft or drop a bomb. When the T-38 was fielded, phones were bolted to the walls, were mechanical devices, and were strictly limited to voice communications. Today, we carry them everywhere and they are massively powerful information tools, not just voice communication devices. This revolution has also occurred in the cockpit, which means pilots must be trained in an appropriate fashion. It is no longer just about stick and rudder skills—it is also all about harnessing data in an effective, dynamic fashion. The T-X must reflect this reality.
Second, the Air Force needs a training solution that minimizes reliance upon combat aircraft. Today’s student pilots execute a significant portion of their training in front line planes like the F-16 and F-15. This is hugely inefficient, for the hourly operating costs for these types are far higher than a trainer. Detailing combat aircraft as trainers also reduces the number of planes available to meet combatant commander requirements. This is incredibly important considering that the Air Force has far too few fighters and bombers to meet current demand. Addressing this issue demands a modern training system that can span a broad range of operating considerations.
Third, this acquisition effort is not just about buying an aircraft; the Air Force needs a robust family of systems to effectively and efficiently train its pilots. Given the range of skills being taught today, optimal training requires harnessing capable ground-based simulators as well as live, virtual, and constructive training aids. Learning how to operate a radar or practicing the basics of air-to-air refueling—both tasks can be simulated on the ground. This allows a student the time to concentrate on attaining new skills without the cost associated with flying an actual airplane. Incorporating such systems is not “gold-plating” the training experience; it is a basic common sense approach to better train students and save money.
Fourth, the training enterprise must afford flexibility so that new upgrades can be added as requirements dictate without taking years or costing a fortune. This means harnessing open mission systems (OMS) to avoid proprietary control issues. OMS will also allow the Air Force to potentially grow the T-X aircraft past its training role. Given the wide array of missions the T-38 has executed over its service life, this is a smart factor to consider. It will also enhance T-X sales opportunities abroad with allies.
Finally, the Air Force should also seek to acquire an aircraft that will prove efficient from a life cycle perspective. We procure an aircraft once, but we sustain it for life. The incoming Administration has already clearly communicated a focus on good governance in acquisition, focusing on sustainment costs as well as the acquisition cost of new systems. Whether looking at hourly fuel burn, maintenance costs, or logistics considerations, the T-X program affords the opportunity for the Air Force to save money by prioritizing an efficient solution. The Air Force’s bid request details over 10,000 discrete requirements. However, it includes none related to the program’s lifecycle cost or for operations and sustainment costs. Given how long this system will stay in the Air Force, life cycle efficiencies should be prioritized, and analysis and evaluation of life cycle costs for this multi-billion dollar program should be added as one of the evaluation criterion.
Pilot training represents the foundation on which so many Air Force missions depend. The T-38 is a plane that has served admirably over the years, but the nation can no longer rely on an aircraft whose design dates back to the Eisenhower administration. Past being simply worn out, pilots need a training enterprise that matches modern requirements and budget realities demand an efficient solution. It is critical to get this acquisition effort right as the Air Force needs this capability sooner rather than later.
David A. Deptula, a retired Air Force Lt. General, with over 3000 flying hours, planned the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies.