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T-7A

Posted on September 21 2021

T-7A user+1@localho… Tue, 09/21/2021 - 21:17

The T-7A “Red Hawk” is an advanced jet trainer (AJT) built by Boeing in partnership with Saab. The aircraft is powered by a single General Electric F404 turbofan engine. The T-7A will replace the T-38 Talon in U.S. Air Force service with an initial program of record for 351 aircraft. Boeing believes the T-7’s embedded simulation capabilities as well as its low fly-away and sustainment cost will make the type an attractive platform in the international AJT and light combat aircraft (LCA) market. Boeing claims the T-7's use of digital design tools, model based engineering and advanced manufacturing techniques facilitated an accelerated development schedule and reduced production costs.  

Program History

The USAF originally acquired its T-38 Talon fleet between 1961 and 1972. The type received numerous structural, engine and subsystem overhauls to keep the aircraft serviceable. However, the T-38 has become increasingly unable to replicate the growing avionics complexity and performance of modern fighters. In 2009, the USAF found the T-38 could not meet 12 out of 18 essential tasks to conduct pilot training such as sensor fusion, advanced air-to-air tactics, etc. In December 2013, Boeing and Saab signed a Joint Development Agreement to explore a future advanced jet trainer for the USAF.

By March 2015, the USAF published an initial request for information (RFI) for its T-X requirement. The service issued a draft RFP in July 2016 and the final RFP on Dec. 30, 2016. Key aircraft capabilities included sustaining a threshold of 6.5g, and an objective of 7.5g, at Mach 0.9 and 15,000 ft. over 140 deg. of a 180-deg. maneuver while carrying an 80% fuel load. The service projected the cost of 351 aircraft and 40 simulators at more than $16 billion. 

Originally, five teams participated the in competition, but many firms left or reorganized their bids prior to source selection: Lockheed Martin-KAI with the T-50A, Boeing-Saab with the T-X, Raytheon-Leonardo with the T-100, Northrop Grumman-BAE with the Hawk (later a clean sheet design) and Textron Airland with the Scorpion. In January 2017, Raytheon announced it had withdrawn from T-X. Leonardo opted to continue and partnered with its U.S. based subsidiary DRS. Raytheon’s departure was followed by Northrop Grumman and Textron Airland in February and March 2017 respectively. Many firms reportedly left as they perceived the competition would favor the lowest-cost, technically compliant bid. On September 27, 2018, the Air Force selected Boeing to build its next generation AJT. In September 2019, the Air Force designated the Boeing T-X as the T-7A Red Hawk in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Features

The Boeing T-7A design draws heavily on the high angle of attack (AoA) performance of Boeing’s F/A-18 fighter, with a similar shoulder-mounted trapezoidal wing with leading-edge root extensions, twin fins and all-moving stabilators—although the tails are attached to F-15-style booms. The T-7A even has small vortex control fences at the inboard wing leading edges similar to those on the legacy Hornet. The T-7A’s F404 engine produces nearly three times the thrust of the T-38’s twin J85 turbojets at more than 17,500 lbf. The T-7’s dimensions closely match the T-50 with a length of 46.93 ft., wingspan of 30.6 ft. and height of 13.55 ft.

The T-7A is equipped with a centerline hardpoint underneath the fuselage and Boeing has said two additional pylons per wing can be equipped as needed. Similarly, Boeing has built provisions for an aerial refueling receptacle which can be added subject to customer requirements. The following companies are involved with the T-7 program:

  • Saab aft fuselage section
  • Elbit Systems of America cockpit displays, embedded training capability, data link
  • General Electric F404 turbofan engine 
  • L3Harris Technologies mission systems, including navigation system
  • Collins Aerospace ACES 5 ejection seat, landing gear, NAV-4500 navigation receivers 
  • Triumph Group Inc hydraulic pumps, electric generators and auxiliary fuel pumps

Saab aft fuselage section. Image credit: Saab

While the baseline T-7A does not feature a radar, weapons, or a defensive suite, emended simulation capabilities enable the aircraft to replicate training with simulated systems – lowering training costs.

Black Diamond, Digital Design & Engineering

Arguably the most important feature of the T-7A is its use of digital design and model-based engineering (MBS) tools. In 2012, Boeing began its Black Diamond initiative for commercial applications which combined digital engineering with automated assembly of complex aerospace structures such as curved shapes and internal component structures. Metrology assisted sensors and machining tools shared with Boeing suppliers facilitated the process of determinant assembly. Suppliers are now able to predrill components within precise tolerances such that Boeing is able to rapidly conduct final assembly, fastening and fitting with minimal touch labor. In May 2021, Boeing showcased the T-7A’s use of determinant assembly when it combined its forward fuselage section with Saab’s aft fuselage in less than 30 minutes – a process which normally would take 24 hrs.

Boeing says the net effect its MBS and manufacturing processes is reduced manufacturing cost, accelerated development timelines and hastening of the learning curve. Whereas a typical production line efficiencies may be realized after 100 units, MBS could achieve these gains on the order of 10 units in the real world after having already produced hundreds of aircraft digitally. Boeing’s confidence in its Black Diamond effort led to an aggressive pricing strategy with a fly-away cost of approximately $18 million (in FY18 dollars) relative to Lockheed’s T-50A fly-away cost bid of at least $25 million. Lockheed CEO at the time, Marillyn Hewson, later remarked the company would have lost $5 billion had it met Boeing’s aggressive pricing to win the contract. Boeing credits its digital design processes with a 75% increase improvement in first-time engineering quality, 50% reduction in software development time and 80% reduction in assembly time. As of the time of this writing, it remains to be seen if the full promise of Boeing’s MBS technologies will deliver. The Air Force has now branded Boeing’s MBS digital twin of the T-7A as the “e-T-7A”.

Production and Delivery History

United States 

As of June 2021, the GAO estimated the development cost of the T-7A at $1.275 billion and production at $7.142 billion for five EMD aircraft and 346 production examples. This would correspond with a total program cost of $8.417 billion and a fly-away cost of approximately $20.5 million. The GAO reports a low rate initial production (LRIP) decision is expected in November 2022 with initial operational test and evaluation running from June 2023 through December of that year. A full rate production decision is expected by February 2025. However, the Air Force has since said Milestone C (LRIP) has been delayed until Q4 FY2023 with an overall 9-month delay to the program. The USAF plans to take delivery of the first engineering & manufacturing development (EMD) aircraft prior to the end of 2022 and will take delivery of production aircraft through 2034.

Under the terms of the $9.2 billion contract awarded on September 27, 2018, the first four lots of aircraft will be fixed-price with incentive fees while the remaining lots will be firm fixed price. The contract’s structure penalizes Boeing in the event of overruns, similar to the KC-46 program. Note, the contract covers 475 aircraft as well as 120 simulators. The Air Force currently plans to buy 351 aircraft, but the contract is structured such that each production lot contains options for additional aircraft that could be used to accelerate the acquisition if funds are available. The initial EMD contract of $813 million covers of five aircraft and seven simulators.

On October 18, 2018, Saab announced it had received a $117 million contract from Boeing to support EMD activities up until 2022. In April 2021, Saab delivered its first aft fuselage section and the second in June. Each section was shipped from Saab’s plant in Linköping to St. Louis for assembly, but Saab eventually aims to transition production to West Lafayette in Indiana upon concluding EMD. Boeing already has two company funded prototypes participating in flight testing and other risk reduction activities. No outer mold line changes are expected between the prototypes and EMD aircraft.

The Air Force’s FY21 budget requests $1.28 billion over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) through FY25. The FY22 budget does not include a FYDP but lists annual spending at $188.9 million in RDT&E funds and $337 million in prior year funds. The Air Force’s official budget documents show a 16-18-month delay for the start of the production phase, which is now scheduled in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023. But Boeing says the budget documents showed an outdated, placeholder schedule that the Air Force set before contract award in September 2018. The internal schedule set after contract award shows a 7-9 month delay for the program, according to Boeing and the Air Force, “The most recent [Milestone C] estimate was for the first quarter of fiscal 2023 [CY22], which is now the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023,” an Air Force spokesman said. “So technically [we’re] looking at a nine-month delay”.

The Air Force blamed schedule slip on delays with completing the initial design of the T-7A and COVID-19 disruptions to Boeing’s supply chain. Answering a question from a lawmaker about a $17 million budget cut for the T-7A program in the fiscal 2022 budget request, Gen. Charles Brown, the Air Force chief of staff, revealed the delay during testimony to a House Armed Services Committee panel on June 16.

A Boeing-owned T-7A prototype launched a second phase of early flight testing on June 22, taking-off into the St. Louis sky three times after a hiatus of several months caused by a scheduled modification period. A software fix for a wing drop problem discovered during the Phase 1 flight testing — but only acknowledged by Air Force officials and Boeing in mid-June — was loaded into the prototype aircraft on June 17. The aircraft performed “wonderfully and as expected,” said Steve Schmidt, a Boeing test pilot for the T-7A. The aerodynamic problem also played no role in the T-7A program delay, according to Boeing and Air Force officials. As of September 2021, Boeing's test aircraft have flown 300 flights. 

Additional Opportunities 

With an estimated flyaway cost of approximately $20 million, the T-7 has enormous potential to compete with more expensive platforms in the adversary training, light attack and homeland defense/air sovereignty roles. In the fall of 2019, the MITRE Corporation – a federally funded research and development center – recommended the USAF acquire 15 squadrons (400 aircraft) of modified T-7s to act as homeland defense aircraft, replacing the F-15, F-16 and F-35 in the role. KAI has successfully utilized this model with several international customers with combat capable TA-50 and FA-50s (the later with a fly-away cost of approximately $35 million).

Over the course of the summer of 2021, the Air Force is believed to have examined the utility of a combat T-7 derivative. Chuck Dabundo, Boeing’s vice president and general manger of the T-7 program remarked in February 2021, “It is a fighter. It’s a matter of just adding capabilities that are required by customers”. Adaptations may include adding hard points on the wing and the center fuselage, integrating defensive aids and inserting new data links, Dabundo said. But the aircraft’s design goals to achieve a low acquisition and hourly operating cost with a flexible systems architecture give it a “good start” to perform new missions. “We do see a pretty large market out there for variants of the T-7 to support some of those other missions like Adversary Air and light attack,” he said. For example, Boeing is understood to have pitched a modified version of its T-7A for Malaysia’s LCA tender in September 2021.

The T-7’s potential in the international market also is substantial – Boeing estimates up to 2,600 T-7s could be sold globally. Saab’s partnership in the T-7 program could make the type more attractive to potential European customers. In May 2017, Colonel Magnus Liljegren indicated Sweden would likely replace its fleet of Saab 105 trainers with the Boeing-Saab T-X – should the type win the U.S. competition. As of the time of this writing, Sweden has yet to commit toward acquiring the T-7A. The country now plans to defer the induction of a new AJT fleet until the early 2030s and use twin seat Gripens as an interim replacement for the Saab 105.

In the Asia-Pacific, Boeing is marketing the T-7A to meet Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AJT requirements. The country’s 2016 Defense White Paper outlines the need to replace the RAAF’s fleet of 33 Hawk AJTs at a projected cost of A$4-5 billion ($2.5 to $3 billion). As of the time of this writing, Japan’s prospective replacement of its 200 Kawasaki T-4 AJTs remains the largest opportunity in the region. However, the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) is still at an early stage of defining its future pilot training needs. The country has been slow to adopt embedded training and simulation capabilities relative to its Western peers. Cost is also expected to play a key role in the tender as the JASDF struggles to fund F-X, F-35 and its F-15 upgrade program.

The U.S. Navy is looking to replace more than 200 T-45 Goshawk AJTs starting as early as the mid-2020s. In a May 2020 solicitation, the service has said the new AJT does not need to be carrier suitable – significantly improving the probability that the T-7 will be chosen. Relative to the USAF’s T-X, the Navy is understood have placed a greater near-term emphasis on adversary training. Boeing’s proposed T-7B would reportedly increase internal fuel to 4,800 lbs. and add new wingtip stations. Additional features could include a centerline EW pod, IRST pod, cockpit configured for either the F/A-18E/F or F-35, helmet mounted display, MIDS-JTRS (Link 16 waveform), Range (ACMI) pod and a practice ordinance pod. As with the Air Force, price will be a key factor. The sea service faces a substantial shipbuilding budget shortfall with existing programs such as the Columbia-class as well as the prospective SSN(X) future attack submarine, large surface combatant and naval Next Generation Air Dominance programs.

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