Boeing has confirmed it has responded to a Request for Information (RFI) from the Commonwealth for the Project AIR 6002 Phase 1 future lead-in fighter training system (LIFTS) requirement, with its new T-7A Red Hawk.
Boeing’s response comes as the RAAF considers options for a new lead-in fighter that will best prepare fast jet aircrew for integration into the growing Australian 5th generation air combat system. The Boeing response forms part of a strong field of candidates for the LIFTS from the likes of Lockheed Martin, KAI, and Leonardo, with Boeing perhaps holding a slight advantage after the USAF selected the T-7A to replace the T-38C trainer.
As ADBR reported in our May-June 2020 issue, the RFI was issued on 3 June 2020 by CASG’s Aerospace Systems Division through AUSTENDER, and submissions closed on 31 July. It said it was seeking, “information about these technologies while providing industry an opportunity to engage early on the capability lifecycle as it considers options that may contribute towards the next generation of LIF capability”.
While still very early in the planning phase, it says responses to the RFI will “inform Defence decision-making in relation to the future of the LIFTS capability”, and stresses that the RFI, “does not form any part of any Commonwealth procurement process”. The LIFTS will eventually replace the BAE Hawk 127 in RAAF service.
The RFI says, “The LIFTS provides the ways and means to train fast-jet aircrew between graduation from the PC-21 to commencing conversion training on frontline fast-jet aircraft (F/A-18F, EA-18G and/ or F-35A). The current LIFTS has a secondary role to support other ADF capabilities as friendly or adversary force training elements across maritime, land, and air domains.”
ADBR understands that, while AIR 6002 Phase 1 will seek the LIFTS, a nascent Phase 2 will seek to expand and place a greater emphasis on the current ‘secondary role’ of ADF support. This will see the successful system performing anti-ship strike training, adversary air-to-air basic fighter manoeuvring (BFM), strike force augmentation for large force employment training (e.g. Pitch Black), forward air control (FAC) and joint terminal air controller (JTAC) training, and possibly a manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) role in conjunction with the Loyal Wingman unmanned capability.
To this end, the successful system will likely require a high-performance – likely supersonic – aircraft with open architecture systems to allow for the integration of avionics, sensors, communications, electronic warfare emulators, and weapons. All of these systems will be required to challenge a 5th gen combat capability such as the F-35A during training.
Importantly, the new LIFTS will be required to also perform weapons system operator (WSO) aircrew training for the RAAF’s F/A-18F and EA-18G back-seaters, respectively.
Currently, RAAF WSOs are trained on the Super Hornet by the US Navy at NAS Oceania in Virginia, while Growler WSOs are trained by the US Navy at NAS Whidbey Island in Washington state. But if much of the initial WSO training can be conducted on the much more economical LIFTS, this will eliminate the need to send these trainees overseas and will also free up hours from the front-line aircraft.
The RAAF ordered 33 Hawk 127s in 1997 to replace the Macchi MB.326. The first 12 jets were built by BAE Systems in the UK while the remaining 21 Hawks were assembled at a new facility at RAAF Williamtown, and the first Hawk 127 entered service in 1999.
The RAAF’s Hawk fleet underwent a comprehensive upgrade of its avionics and training systems from 2016 to 2018 under Project AIR 5438 Lead-in Fighter Capability Assurance Program (LIFCAP) in order to better prepare fast jet pilots for the F-35A Lightning II and other next-generation aircraft.
But, at a time where RAAF fast-jet pilot training throughput is at a critical stage as the F-35A comes online, the Hawk has suffered in recent years from poor availability. This has resulted in at least two fleet-wide groundings – the most recent being in May and June 2019 – due to ongoing reliability issues with its Rolls-Royce Adour 871 engine.
While Defence said there were no operational restrictions placed on the fleet immediately following the 2019 grounding, a spokesman told ADBR that “aircrew have been advised to be stringent in their application of existing operational controls to ensure any risk is reduced so far as reasonably practicable”.
Following the closure of RFI submissions, BAE Systems Australia released a statement in August emphasising the remaining fatigue life of the RAAF’s fleet of 33 Hawk 127s before it needs to be retired. The company says a Hawk full scale fatigue test airframe has been subjected to 14 years of fatigue testing since 2006 under a joint program with the Defence Science & Technology (DST) Group at DST’s Fisherman’s Bend facility in Melbourne. It says that, while the RAAF’s Hawks have a planned fatigue life of 10,000 flying hours each, the test article has been subjected to 50,000 hours of loads that simulate flight and real-life airframe use in service.
“The full scale fatigue test is a hugely important achievement for the Australian Lead-In Fighter program and was made possible by the collaboration of a small dedicated team across many thousands of kilometres,” BAE Systems Australia Director Aircraft Sustainment and Training, Andrew Chapman, said in the statement.
The company says the RAAF’s Hawk fleet has recorded a total of 122,000 hours in service, an average of less than 4,000 hours each, or less than half their planned fatigue life, meaning the now 20-year old fleet has a theoretical life-of-type extending into the 2040s.
BAE Systems did not confirm whether it has responded to the RFI with further upgrades to the Hawk beyond those conducted under the AIR 5438 which was completed in 2019. But ADBR understands informal discussions about a possible re-engine of the aircraft with the latest Rolls-Royce Adour 951 engine have been held, and that this may form the basis of any BAE Systems proposal.
BOEING/SAAB T-7A RED HAWK
Boeing says the T-7A – which the USAF has selected to replace its Northrop T-38C Talon supersonic trainer – will provide a “scalable, interoperable, and
configurable capability, and is ideally suited to address the RAAF’s next-generation frontline fast-jet aircraft training requirements”.
“No other training system in the world today will better develop the skills required to operate the RAAF’s most advanced frontline aircraft like the F/A-18 Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and the F-35,” Vice President Boeing T-7 Programs, Chuck Dabundo said in a statement.
Boeing Defence Australia Vice President and Managing Director, Scott Carpendale added, “The T-7 stands apart as a compelling solution for Australia’s future training requirements. We believe it meets Australia’s current and future fast-jet training needs with its next-generation system that combines live, virtual and synthetic training environments.”
Two prototype T-7As have been flying since December 2016 and April 2017. Designed with significant input from Saab, the T-7A is powered by a single 17,000lb augmented thrust General Electric F404-GE-103 turbofan, the same as that on the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A-D ‘classic’ Hornet and Saab JAS-39A-D Gripen.
The airframe has a similar configuration to the F/A-18 family, with twin vertical stabilisers set forward of the mid-set horizontal stabilisers, a high-set trapezoid wing, and the engine intakes set under the wing leading edge root extension (LEX). Boeing says the T-7A is designed to provide “fighter-like performance” and handling.
The aft fuselage is built by Saab at its Linköping facility in Sweden, while the rest of the jet is manufactured by Boeing at its St Louis facility in Missouri and by its various suppliers.
Importantly, ADF sources describe the T-7A’s stepped tandem cockpit as “huge”, saying it offers excellent visibility from both seats, and can easily accommodate 90th percentile humans and large wide-screen cockpit displays. It has been designed for the avionics, displays, and controls to be re-configurable as new frontline combat aircraft are introduced, or upgraded, to retain as much training and conversion commonality as possible.
The T-7A was selected under the USAF’s T-X requirement to replace the USAF’s T-38C, and Boeing was awarded a US$9.2bn (A$12.5bn) contract for 351 T-7As in September 2018 with options to deliver an additional 124 aircraft. The program will also deliver 46 simulators and associated training systems. The clean-sheet T-7A beat out the Leonardo M346 Master and the Lockheed Martin/ Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50A for T-X.
Five engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) T-7As are currently in production by Boeing and Saab, and the first of these is slated to roll out in June 2021 and to fly in September 2021. The initial US$813m (A$1.103bn) EMD contract will also see seven simulators delivered to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas in 2023 for the development of pilot training and an aircrew training syllabus.
In testing, the T-7A has completed 80 per cent of its phase one developmental testing through more than 200 flights, and the training system has successfully undergone an overall system critical design review. Two low-rate initial production (LRIP) lots and eight full-rate production lots are planned, and the USAF plans to declare an initial operational capability (IOC) by 2024, with all 351 aircraft due to be delivered by 2033.
The aircraft was named Red Hawk in September 2019 in honour of the Tuskagee Airmen, an African-American combat unit in WW2 who painted the tails of many of their aircraft red, and the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk which many of them flew.
The T-7A’s ground-based training system is described by Boeing as “highly immersive”. It says it will offload skill development from the aircraft on to synthetic devices and live-virtual constructive (LVC) training. It says that, including the aircraft, the system offers a complete training solution.
Importantly for the RAAF’s follow-on Phase 2 of AIR 6002, Boeing is studying the development of an armed light-attack version of the T-7 which is plans to offer as a replacement for air forces looking to replace Northrop F-5, Dornier AlphaJet, or even early-marque Lockheed F-16s and other light combat aircraft in service. The development of this version will enable the missionised capabilities required by the RAAF’s Phase 2.
This could also include the development of a fast-jet manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) training capability in conjunction with Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS) currently being developed for the RAAF’s Loyal Wingman requirement.
The potential of the integration of a number of unmanned aircraft with a manned fast-jet for fleet support or large strike force employment training against blue forces is compelling and, through the use of artificial intelligence, not unrealistic.
After losing the Joint Strike Fighter competition in 2001, Boeing appears to have focused on creating an air combat system that includes everything except the F-35. This system covers airpower roles from strike (F/A-18F), maritime surveillance (P-8A), airborne control and battle management (E-7A), airborne electronic attack (EA-18G), and unmanned systems (ATS).
AIR 6002 will likely feature the same contenders that bid for the USAF’s T-X, plus several more. As mentioned above, with BAE Systems emphasising the remaining fatigue-life of the RAAF’s Hawk 127, it is expected to offer a re-engined and upgraded Hawk. Another option is the Leonardo M346 Master which is in service with Italy, Israel, Poland, Azerbaijan, and Singapore.
Leonardo says the M346’s embedded tactical training simulation (ETTS) system allows it to emulate on-board sensors, weapons, and computer generated forces (CGF), and allows pilots to interact in real time with a virtual tactical scenario in an LVC environment.
And while KAI has confirmed it has offered the T-50, it remains to be seen whether it and Lockheed Martin can come together to offer the aircraft, or if Lockheed Martin goes it alone with its T-50A version. The original T-50 was originally developed using significant design and systems input from the F-16C, so Lockheed Martin likely owns significant intellectual property on all versions of the T-50, and may even have the rights to offer it alone in specific markets.
The T-50A was developed specifically for T-X and, as the manufacturer of the F-35, Lockheed Martin is more likely to be able to successfully develop a training system for the T-50A that will more directly align with the requirements of future F-35A pilots. The US-based OEM would be better placed to integrate the advanced training and other systems needed to meet the nascent AIR 6002 Phase 2 requirement.
This feature story appeared in the July-August 2020 issue of ADBR.