WASHINGTON — With U.S. President Donald Trump’s attention fixed on the F-35 and Air Force One, the Air Force’s biggest ongoing aircraft competition so far has gone untouched. But even without Trump’s intervention, the T-X race has evolved into something not unlike an episode of a reality TV show, featuring industry teams breaking up, companies unexpectedly dropping out and upstart entries coming in at the last minute.
The T-X program began with four main competitors: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman — which developed a new prototype — and a Raytheon-Leonardo team offering the latter firm’s M-346. Over the past couple of months, Northrop has pulled out of the competition, Raytheon dissolved its partnership with Leonardo — leaving the Italian firm to ally with its US wing, DRS Technologies — and several smaller companies, including Sierra Nevada and the nigh-unknown Stavatti Aerospace, decided to throw their designs into the ring.
Analysts tell Defense News that the drama overshadows the most important point: The competition has become a face-off between Boeing’s clean-sheet T-X design and the Lockheed Martin-Korean Aerospace Industries’ T-50A, the US derivative of a trainer flown by the South Korean, Iraqi, Philippine and Indonesian militaries.
And with the T-50 already in production and thousands of hours of flight time behind it, Boeing will face an uphill battle to keep Lockheed from cinching the contract.
"It looks like the emphasis is still very much on unit price and not much of anything else. It's [lowest price technically acceptable], basically, but with some window dressing,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. “And given the need to roll up the upfront development costs, Boeing is at a disadvantage. They'd have to be very aggressive price-wise. They obviously have a history of doing that with [the KC-46] tanker, but this clearly puts the advantage with Lockheed."