T-38 Replacement Moves Ahead, But Without Funding
For three days, Jan. 29-31, 2013, industry reps and Air Force officials convened in intense and cordial meetings at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to talk about a new aircraft the Pentagon wants but can’t afford.
In existing legislation, there’s no funding for the T-X program to replace the sleek but venerable Northrop T-38C Talon, the high-performing, supersonic jet aircraft that has been a schoolhouse in the sky for new fliers since shortly after test pilot Lew Nelson took the plane for its first flight on April 10, 1959.
Northrop built 1,187 T-38A Talons between 1959 and 1972. Some 453 U.S. Air Force Talons (365 T-38A and 88 AT-38B lead-in fighter trainers) underwent a Boeing avionics upgrade begun in 1998 that gave them digital cockpits, head-up displays, multi-color displays, and a new designation: T-38C.
Two 3,850-pound (1746-kilogram) thrust General Electric J85-GE-5A turbojet engines provide power for the Talon.
Although the Air Staff pushed hard for money for a Talon replacement, no acquisition funds were included in the budget for fiscal year 2012, which began Oct. 1, 2011. Because the government is operating under a continuing resolution that retains military funding and spending restrictions at 2012 levels, there’s no money to underwrite even a modest next step, such as a request for proposals for replacing the Talon.
A number of potential new trainer aircraft are available in a market that has been hit hard by a worldwide economic downturn. The Ohio meetings occurred two weeks after Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi announced a partnership with General Dynamics to offer its T-100 aircraft (better known as the M-346 Master) as a T-X candidate.
Other potential candidates include the BAE Systems Hawk AJT (Advanced Jet Trainer) similar to the U. S. Navy’s current T-45C Goshawk, and the Korean T-50 Golden Eagle, for which Lockheed Martin is the lead-contractor partner.
The trade journal Air Force Times referred to a “cloud of uncertainty” surrounding funding for the T-X program, which is in the dubious position of being both essential and low-priority. Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh says his top priorities are a new bomber, the KC-46 air refueling tanker and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The service chief says he has a long “shopping list” of other items that are needed, ranging from T-X to a replacement for the UH-1N Twin Huey helicopter, but observers in Washington say it’s unclear when, or if, money will be in hand to replace the much-loved but geriatric Talon.