The United States, a technological giant that is generations ahead of the rest of the world in developing fighting aircraft, is struggling to make a trainer aircraft for its Air Force.
The T-7A “Red Hawk” advanced trainer jet, whose production was originally scheduled to commence at the end of last year but was delayed until 2024, has been postponed until 2025. The US Air Force has delayed the production decision and delivery of the T-7A due to problems with the ejection seat and other aspects of the escape system, according to a report from DefenseNews.
In an email to DefenseNews, the US Air Force stated that a formal decision to begin low-rate initial production (LRIP) of the T-7A is now anticipated in February 2025, with Boeing delivering the first aircraft in December of the same year. Due to this schedule change, the aircraft will enter Air Force service at least two years later than originally intended.
The website AirForceTimes reported in December 2018 that the commencement of T-7 production had been pushed back to 2024, representing yet another delay in the T-7A project schedule.
Boeing also verified via email to DefenseNews that the T-7 project schedule has been “rebaselined,” but the company still intends to provide pilots with “new critical training capabilities.”
The T-7 “Red Hawk” advanced trainer jet is derived from the Boeing-Saab T-X, which Boeing and Saab of Sweden jointly developed for the US Air Force’s Next Generation Trainer Programme to replace the antiquated T-38 “Talon” trainer fleet. The Lockheed Martin-Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 “Golden Eagle,” the Italian Leonardo T-100 (M346 variant), and the Northrop Grumman Model 400 “Swift” aircraft are its primary rivals. T-7A is designed to meet future fighter and bomber pilot training requirements for the USAF.
On December 20, 2016, and April 24, 2017, two Boeing-Saab T-X proposal demonstration prototypes made their maiden flights. Rob Weiss, then-Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin, stated in March 2017 at the company’s annual media day that they could deliver the T-50 six years ahead of a new design (clearly referring to the Boeing T-X) and save the US Air Force “a billion dollars” because the T-50 is a relatively mature model. In May of the same year, Boeing scoffed at the “fallacy” that a new design takes longer to deliver than existing models, stating during a press briefing that Boeing T-X programme manager Ted Torgerson responded, “I’m not refuting, but how do they (Lockheed Martin) know? Torgerson added that Boeing has invested in the construction of two “pre-production” aircraft (two prototype aircraft that have already flown) and that the project has a complete development plan, has passed system requirements review, preliminary design review, and critical design review, and has a comprehensive flight test programme. Torgerson also stated that the production of two aircraft simultaneously was intended to demonstrate that the T-7 is “not just a demonstration prototype” but a serially producible aircraft.
In 2018, the Boeing team ultimately won and signed a $9.2 billion contract with the USAF to purchase 350 T-7A trainer jets. The win was based on its lowest bid, which was $10 billion less than anticipated.
However, the first “engineering and manufacturing development” aircraft was delayed and was not officially unveiled until April 2022, and the production of batch aircraft is even more uncertain.
However, earlier reports mentioned that in 2021, the emergency escape system of the T-7 may be “potentially hazardous” for some pilots. Some pilots may face problems such as concussion during parachute jumping, dangerous overload during the parachute’s opening, and mask detachment. In late 2022, Boeing stated that repairs, including flight control software, would be tested earlier this year.
This month, the USAF stated that, due to a series of issues such as hardware testing certification, aerodynamic shake, supply chain shortages caused by the pandemic, the emergency escape system, and Boeing’s “inability to repair defects quickly,” they began to redefine the T-7 timetable with Boeing in June last year. The related risk assessment caused the T-7 project office to change the project from the procurement, engineering, manufacturing, and development phase to the production phase (i.e., the “milestone C” frequently mentioned in the US media) in February 2025. This means this project’s first production aircraft will be delivered by December 2025.
Since the production decision will be made in 2025, the USAF stated that it will request procurement funding for the low-rate initial production of the T-7 in the 2024 fiscal year budget. According to the accompanying documents of the 2023 fiscal year budget request, it is estimated that the procurement of the T-7 in the 2024 fiscal year will cost $322 million.
Boeing is still test-flying the first batch of two “pre-production” T-7s at its St. Louis, Missouri factory. In addition, it is building another five “engineering and manufacturing development” prototypes, the first of which was unveiled on April 28 last year. Based on current information, it is still in the ground debugging phase. According to Boeing, these aircraft are expected to begin flight testing at the St. Louis factory this summer. The first three of them will then be transferred to Edwards Air Force Base in California for flight testing starting in September.