USAF’s T-X Jet Trainer Selection Could Come At Any Moment, Who Do You Think Will Win?

The Air Force’s long-awaited decision as to what aircraft will fulfill its next-generation jet trainer requirement, and also possibly take on other roles in the future as well, is by all accounts nearly upon us. WIll Boeing, which has the only clean-sheet design that came about with the help of SAAB, go three for three after surprising many with their recent MQ-25 tanker drone and MH-139 helicopter wins? Or will Lockheed Martin, with their proven and mature T-50 design, an aircraft that the company says is uniquely suited to training future F-35 pilots, take the prize? Leonardo is by far the dark horse candidate with their subsonic, twin-engine M346 (T-100 in U.S.) Master, but the aircraft is an established trainer with cutting-edge synthetic training capabilities. Could the USAF surprise everyone by picking an aircraft that lies outside of its own supersonic performance requirements? 

Cost and risk are huge factors too. Lockheed’s T-50 is a known commodity with roughly 200 in various configurations serving with five countries. As such, it requires little developmental funding. But some say it is too much jet for the mission as the T-50 also serves as a light fighter in FA-50 and F-50 form. Leonardo’s Master is also mature with dozens in service and won’t require big additional development or inject risk into a program that is going to have to compete with many other priorities in the coming decade. Boeing’s entrant could surprise everyone when it comes to a balance of performance versus price as it was tailored to the USAF’s training needs. At the same time, a clean sheet design like Boeing’s is riskier and would take more development dollars—that is unless Boeing is willing to eat a portion of those costs under a fixed-price contract, and especially if they rise beyond the budget of the original procurement plan. 

In the end, each entrant has their own distinct advantages and disadvantages. 

The winner of T-X could realize additional sales well beyond the 350 T-38 replacement aircraft. The Pentagon could acquire the aircraft for aggressor duties and foreign customers are certain to be heavily swayed by the fact that the type will be in service with the USAF. This goes beyond a pedigree consideration. It also means the aircraft will have a very strong support infrastructure and economies of scale when it comes to upgrades and just the basic spare parts supply chain. Even the Navy could seek a navalized version sometime in the future.

And a replacement really can’t come soon enough. The T-38s are all nearly 50 years old or older and crashes have increased. There have been four Talon losses in just the last 10 months. 

So who do you think will win and why? Let’s hash it all out in the discussion section below.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.