Defense Media Network

T-38 Replacement Moves Ahead, But Without Funding

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For three days, Jan. 29-31, 2013, industry reps and U.S. 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.

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.

T-38A Talon

Northrop T-38A Talon (65-10463/RA) of the 560th Flying Training Squadron on approach to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, Aug. 7, 2000, piloted by Maj. Jeff “Rooster” Clay and Maj. Rich Meyer. The Talon fleet was subsequently upgraded to T-38C standard but will soon need to be replaced. Robert F. Dorr Collection

Northrop built 1,187 T-38A Talons between 1959 and 1972. Some 453 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.

A number of potential new trainer aircraft are available in a market that has been hit hard by a worldwide economic downturn.

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.

Royal Air Force Hawk T. Mk2

BAE Systems demonstrated a version of its Hawk AJT (Advanced Jet Trainer) on a demonstration tour of U.S. T-38 Talon bases in October 2011. The aircraft is actually a Royal Air Force Hawk T. Mk2. BAE Systems photo

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.

It’s unclear when, or if, money will be in hand to replace the much-loved but geriatric Talon.

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.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...