Military Embedded Systems

T-X trainer aircraft en route to replace the 57-year-old T-38C Talon for USAF


March 08, 2019

Mariana Iriarte

Technology Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Train like you fight – the U.S. military’s training motto – pushes U.S. Department of Defense planners to provide the technology that enables pilots, sailors, maintainers, etc. to be able to perform their duties as if they were second nature.

The current deployment of 4th- and 5th-generation fighter aircraft – all loaded with cutting-edge avionics, sensors, and smart weapons – requires modernized embedded training systems to properly simulate aircraft operations and functionality for training. An example of this is the U.S. Air Force’s T-X advanced jet trainer program, launched in late 2018. The Boeing/Saab T-X fighter jet will train pilots to fly 4th- and 5th-­generation jets using the latest cutting-edge technology, including embedded training systems and smart weapons.

The Air Force plans to purchase 351 T-X aircraft and 46 simulators, as well as associated ground equipment, with the goal of replacing the venerable T-38C Talon supersonic jet trainer (Figure 1), which has been in service for 50-plus years.


Figure 1: A T-38C Talon used primarily by Air Education and Training Command for undergraduate pilot and pilot instructor training. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Steve White.

(Click graphic to zoom)



The Air Force also has the option to purchase as many as 475 aircraft and 120 simulators, making this a big moneymaker for Boeing, Saab, and its subcontractors. The first trainer and simulator are expected to arrive in 2023, at which point undergraduate pilots will transition to training on the T-X platform.

“Cockpit and sensor management are fundamentally different today in 4th- and 5th-generation aircraft than it was when the T-38 was built in 1961,” says Brig. Gen. Dawn Dunlop, the director of plans, programs and requirements at Air Education and Training Command, in an Air Force news release. “While the T-38 has been upgraded to a glass cockpit, the inability to upgrade the T-38’s performance and simulated sensor capability presents a growing challenge each year to effectively teach the ­critical skills essential to today’s military pilots.”

Aging technology in military systems is arguably the most dangerous of threats. Dunlop’s notes that “12 of 18 advanced pilot training tasks can’t be completed with the T-38, relying on fighter and bomber formal training units to complete the training at a much greater cost.”

“This new aircraft will provide the advanced training capabilities we need to increase the lethality and effectiveness of future Air Force pilots,” says Heather A. Wilson, secretary of the Air Force, upon the announcement of the T-X program. “Through competition we will save at least $10 billion on the T-X program.”

Boeing and Saab teamed up to deliver a design that addresses both the aging technology on the T-38C and the cost of constant retrofits and upgrades. Boeing and Saab documents describe the T-X aircraft as sporting one engine, twin tails, stadium seating, and an advanced cockpit with embedded training. (Figure 2.)


Figure 2: T-X Trainer aircraft. Photo: Boeing.

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General Electric, Collins Aerospace, and Triumph are among those companies subcontracted to produce the T-X.

General Electric (Boston, Massachusetts) provides the GE F404 engine for the program: “The F404s will replace another GE engine, the J85, which was used on the previous generation of T-X trainers,” according to an October 2018 story in GE Reports. “Designed in the late 1950s, the J85 was the first small turbojet to operate with an afterburner and was also the first GE engine with a variable-exhaust nozzle. In the early 1960s, a commercial variant of the engine powered the first Learjets, a family of pioneering private jets for business executives.”

Collins Aerospace (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), a United Technologies Corp. business unit, will provide the ACES 5 ejection seat that provides pilots with passive head and neck protection. The ACES 5 also has arm- and leg-flail prevention, as well as a load-compensating catapult rocket. Collins will also supply the aircraft’s landing gear system.

While Saab is responsible for the aft fuselage and associated subsystems, it will rely on Triumph Group (Berwyn, Pennsylvania) for design, development, manufacture, and support for the aircraft mounted accessory drives (AMAD) and hydraulic systems.

Full operational capability for the T-X fleet is expected by 2034.