U.S. Navy Is Steaming Ahead On A New Trainer
The U.S. Navy wants to move on quickly from its troubled T-45 Goshawk trainer toward the next-generation Undergraduate Jet Training System, but new requirements for the latter aircraft may slow the replacement process.
For years, the service has debated whether a future trainer—which would also be used for Marine Corps pilots—must be able to operate from a carrier like the T-45 does. Operational aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 are capable of autolanding on the ship. An Undergraduate Jet Training System (UJTS) request for information (RFI) released in mid-August provides a compromise: The future trainer would not be designed to go to the ship, but would need to be able to endure repeated unflared landings to practice the carrier flight profile.
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This would require further engineering and development for the announced candidate aircraft, likely stretching out the program.
“The government assumes the development of [Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP)] is the main schedule driver,” the RFI states.
While the Navy has trickled out multiple UJTS solicitations in the past five years, service officials say they are now pressing ahead to speed up the replacement. During a panel discussion at the Tailhook Symposium in Sparks, Nevada, on Aug. 26, then-Commander of Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, who is retiring, said former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told the command to “get out of the T-45 as fast as possible.”
The RFI calls for an assumed contract award in 2026, for a minimum of 145 aircraft at a full-rate production of 25 per year. This would make the UJTS competition the service’s second largest aviation acquisition effort, behind its sixth-generation F/A-XX program.
During the Tailhook Symposium, three competitors for the UJTS were on display, including one previously unannounced industry team.
Textron Aviation Defense and Leonardo are teaming up to offer the M-346N, a modified version of the M-346 operating in several countries including Italy, Poland and Singapore. It is the latest iteration of the M-346 proposed for U.S. services after Leonardo alone offered it for the U.S. Air Force’s T-X program. Textron says it is focusing on M-346N for the training role, while its similar Scorpion is a possible entrant for other light attack programs.
“With a combined history of more than 140 years designing and producing the world’s most prolific military flight trainers, our two companies share a vital top priority—providing and sustaining the world’s finest military flight training systems,” says Tom Webster, vice president for Textron Aviation defense global sales and strategy.
Textron’s offer is the latest in its Navy training history through Beechcraft, following aircraft such as the T-34 Mentor, T-44 Pegasus, T-6 Texan II and the T-54A, which was recently selected for the Navy’s Multiengine Training System. The new agreement comes just three months after Leonardo announced a similar deal with Airbus to offer the M-346 in Europe in preparation for the European Future Combat Air System. The M-346 is already in service with several nations, including Greece, Israel, Italy, Poland, Qatar and Singapore, along with the International Flight Training School.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin displayed the TF-50N, its newest version of the T-50, partnering with Korean Aerospace Industries for the program. Current operators of the T-50 include Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, the Philippines, Poland, South Korea and Thailand.
Greg Moseley, Lockheed Martin’s director of domestic business development for its integrated fighter group, says the baseline T-50 is a proven platform—it has been used to train more than 2,500 student pilots and logged more than 300,000 flight hours. As part of a new agreement with Korean Aerospace Industries, Lockheed Martin has worked closely with South Korean pilots to assess their transition from flying T-40s to F-35s to guide the TF-50N offering.
Lockheed’s engineers have been reviewing the Navy’s latest RFI to determine what added work the aircraft would need. Though the requirements for unflared landings and glideslope would put stress on a trainer’s airframe over its lifespan, the company is confident it will meet the Navy’s requirements.
“The Navy is harder on their platforms, and rightfully so,” Moseley says. “Their sole fighter platforms are recovering to carriers, and so it does take and it will take a much longer and harder look at engineering and fuselage strain on platforms. But as our engineers continue to focus on it, I really believe we’ll be in a strong position as we come out of the research we’re doing.”
Lockheed Martin is not yet ready to specify the exact capabilities of the TF-50N, which will depend on the company’s response to the RFI. Still, Moseley asserts, “We’re going to be very competitive going forward.”
At the symposium, Boeing displayed a Navy white-and-orange version of its T-7A Red Hawk—the winner of the Air Force’s T-X program, with at least 351 of the aircraft expected for the service. Like its competitors, Boeing says it will refine its aircraft to meet FCLP requirements.
“We plan to work with the U.S. Navy to modify the T-7 to meet the requirements for their Undergraduate Jet Training System,” says Donn Yates, Boeing’s executive director for fighters and trainers business development. “We see this as an opportunity to help define and develop future training needs for the Navy’s next generation of naval aviators.”
Other prospective competitors include the Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Freedom, an aircraft it originally partnered with Turkish Aerospace Industries on for the T-X program. The company teased the competition ahead on social media of Tailhook with a photo of the aircraft in the Navy’s signature orange and white.
The increased emphasis on the carrier landing profile and repeated unflared landings is new in the August RFI, compared to previous versions released as early as 2018. Specifically, the document calls for an aircraft that can maintain a fixed angle-of-attack approach targeting a 3-deg. glideslope while maintaining field of view during an unflared landing. The aircraft needs to be capable of 6-10 unflared landings per training event, as well as conducting unflared landings throughout its service life.
To further replicate carrier operations, the aircraft must be able to maintain control and come to a stop on a minimum 6,000-ft.-long X 100-ft.-wide runway. In performance, the aircraft needs to be capable of Mach 0.9, a 7.33g sustained load factor and a ceiling of 41,000 ft.
Driving home the importance of FCLP operations, the Navy is inviting industry to a training base in Texas in October to monitor T-45 touch-and-goes in the flight profile “to enhance industry’s understanding of the unique Navy landings.”
In addition to the UJTS, the Navy has expressed interest in a Tactical Surrogate Aircraft to further improve pilot training. A fleet of about 64 aircraft would provide advanced instruction following the undergraduate program. Though discussed, the program has seen no movement since an October 2021 request for information.