The 351 to 475 training aircraft and 120 ground-based training systems would be produced at Boeing’s St. Louis plant through 2034.
Boeing defeated Lockheed Martin to win its third prize in a recent flurry of defense contracts, snaring a U.S. Air Force contest valued at as much as $9.2 billion to build training jets to hone the flying skills of future aviators.
The 351 to 475 training aircraft and 120 ground-based training systems would be produced at Boeing’s St. Louis plant through 2034, the Air Force announced Thursday. The service is initially issuing a contract for $813 million, including engineering and manufacturing development.
With the win, Boeing swept the trio of high-profile contracts awarded before the Sept. 30 close of the federal fiscal year.
The aerospace giant also scored a potential $13 billion franchise to build MQ-25 carrier-based refueling drones for the U.S. Navy, and with Italian firm Leonardo won a $2.38 billion contest to replace a fleet of Huey helicopters guarding the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missile sites.
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The winning streak, after a long series of disappointments for Boeing, provides a boost to its Defense and Space division, which is poised to rebound after shrinking for most of the past decade. Boeing’s military arm has been eclipsed by the rapid growth of its commercial-jet unit this decade. The defense division accounted for 23 percent of sales last year, down from 50 percent in 2010.
The T-X Trainer program will replace the Air Force’s half-century-old fleet of T-38 supersonic jets that have helped prepare fighter pilots for combat since John F. Kennedy was president.
Before the Air Force announcement, aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia described T-X as “the last undecided US military aircraft competition for many years to come.”
In an article at Forbes.com, Aboulafia said the next major U.S. military aircraft selection, likely a new Air Force fighter, might not happen for 12 years or longer.
Because Boeing lost the F-35 jet fighter contract to Lockheed, and the B-21 Air Force stealth-bomber contract to Northrop Grumman, the T-X competition loomed as a must-win if Boeing was to stay in military-aircraft production.
Boeing management offered a clean-sheet design, went all-in and was so confident of a win that it put a photo of the two T-X flying prototypes on the cover of the company’s 2017 annual report, released earlier this year.
Aboulafia estimates that Boeing spent $1.5 billion to create the new T-X design and build the prototypes.
Winning the competition was so important to Boeing that management may have effectively written off those costs and put in a low bid to ensure a win, as the company did on the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker for the Air Force.
That strategy has proved costly so far on the KC-46, with Boeing racking up cost overruns totaling $3.4 billion to date.
On both the KC-46 and T-X, Boeing’s hopes of recouping its costs depend on further overseas sales after the U.S. military decision.
The Teal Group of Fairfax, Virginia, forecasts a global market for 2,441 turbofan-powered trainers valued at $30.3 billion over the next decade, according to a December research report.
The contest pitted an all-new aircraft and flight simulators created by Boeing and Stockholm-based Saab against entries based on existing models from a Lockheed-Korean Aerospace Industries partnership and from Rome-based Leonardo, bidding through its DRS subsidiary. Northrop Grumman, Textron, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Raytheon were among the companies that dropped out of the competition.
Pentagon officials credited the competition with trimming program costs by more than $10 billion. The original service-cost estimate was $19.7 billion for 351 aircraft. The first T-X aircraft and simulators are scheduled to arrive at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas in 2023.
“This new aircraft will provide the advanced training capabilities we need to increase the lethality and effectiveness of future Air Force pilots,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a statement.
While the Air Force has a firm requirement for 351 trainers, the $9.2 billion potential value reflects contract options that would increase the fleet to 475 if exercised, Will Roper, the service’s weapons buyer, told reporters.
Military-aircraft contests have been few and far between in an era of budget constraints, so even contracts for less-sophisticated jets such as trainers are highly prized as prime defense contractors like Boeing work to keep airplane designers sharp and factories humming.
With the trainer contract, Boeing’s St. Louis manufacturing base secures work that preserves jobs after production eventually ends for the F-15 Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet. The Chicago-based plane maker is working to secure new orders to preserve the Missouri industrial base and engineering acumen gained with the 1997 acquisition of McDonnell Douglas.
The Boeing jet melds a twin tail reminiscent of the Super Hornet with a General Electric engine and systems honed through Saab’s Gripen jets. The real innovation comes from the advanced manufacturing techniques developed in the company’s secretive “Black Diamond” initiative that sought to modernize the way Boeing manufactures military and commercial jets.
The advances used on the T-X Trainer jets range from using 3-D printing for the plane’s ductwork to a canopy developed with injection molding that shaves a six-week process down to eight days, executives told reporters after the Boeing model was unveiled in 2016.