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.
"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."
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