Rob Weiss, executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin's advanced development programs, better known as the Skunk Works, said the company has a clean-sheet design for T-X on hand on the off-chance the T-50 cannot meet the requirements for the T-X program, which are expected to be released shortly.
"We have taken, over the years, a broad look at the whole T-X requirement," Weiss told reporters last month. "Back in 2010, when this really started getting going as a program, we looked at clean-sheet alternatives as well. And we've kept a low-level effort going on the clean sheet.
"So depending exactly on where the Air Force lands on the requirement, we'll see exactly what we bring forward as the offering."
To be clear: The plan remains that the T-50, a joint development with Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI), will be Lockheed's offering for T-X. A number of Lockheed executives, including Weiss, expressed confidence to Defense News that the T-50 will meet the requirements and prove a winner for the competition.
However, Lockheed wants to make sure the company isn't caught by surprise if the Air Force decides it wants a bespoke system.
"We're confident that the T-50 will meet all the requirements. The issue would be if the Air Force backs away from those requirements," Weiss said. "Then theoretically, you've got capability the customer doesn't value. So that would be more the driver of a clean sheet."
The T-50 is used by both South Korea and Indonesia, while Iraq and the Philippines are on contract and awaiting their first deliveries.
The T-X program has drawn significant interest from five industry competitors. The winner of the program, which will replace T-38 advanced trainers with 350 new production models, will likely be set up as the dominant producer of training aircraft for the next two decades.
When the T-X program was first announced, the Air Force hinted to industry it was looking for an off-the-shelf system, something that would keep costs down. Lockheed and KAI quickly decided on the T-50, while General Dynamics and Italy's Alenia Aermacchi presented the T-100, based on the latter's M-346 design. A third competitor also offered an off-the-shelf solution, as Northrop Grumman teamed with BAE to offer the latter's Hawk training system.
In the last year, however, Boeing has announced it has teamed with Saab to enter a clean-sheet design. Then last month, Northrop shocked the aviation world when it announced it was scrapping plans to offer the Hawk in favor of another brand-new design.
Northrop executives described that decision as a change driven by the expected requirements from the service, leaving aviation observers to wonder if the service has moved away from a desire for an off-the-shelf system.
Weiss said the trade studies Lockheed has done still leads them to conclude the T-50 is the best option.
"If we're talking about something that is off the shelf, already has air worthiness certification, proven performance as a training asset, off the shelf is a way to go," he said. "What we've understood is the Air Force wants to get ahead of the high, high budget demands for production associated with [larger programs], so if you want to get ahead of that it would suggest that the off-the-shelf answer is the way to do that."
The T-50 could also be a good fit for any Air Force aggressor training requirement, as KAI already has two variants in the light-attack TA-50 and multirole fighter FA-50 designs. However, while the service is weighing a future aggressor requirement, Air Force officials said that will not be part of the initial T-X requirements.
While it is an off-the-shelf option, that doesn't mean the T-50 is ready to go on day one, with Weiss noting there are some upgrades that would be needed to meet the T-X requirement.
"We have some insertion of technology that needs to go into the T-50, so we're leading that technology insertion," Weiss said. "Cockpit, embedded training, things of that nature, potentially in-flight refueling."
Rod McLean, who leads Lockheed Martin's F-22/F-16 integrated fighter group and who would be responsible for ensuring the T-50 could be delivered to the Air Force, said the upgrades are needed to make sure the T-50 can train pilots for the high-end systems operated by the Air Force.
"If you look at the basic T-50 aircraft today, we want to make sure that it supports a 5th-generation aircraft," McLean explained. "You look at the displays that you see in the F-22 and F-35, they are different from what we currently have in the T-50. So we're continuing to ensure we have a trainer airplane that supports 5th-generation training requirements."
McLean said he expects an "interesting" competition, given the variety of options available to the Air Force.
"We like the horse we're riding," he said. "The fact we have over 75,000 flying hours, we've already trained 700 pilots, so we can, with no fuzz on the peach, clearly say what our airplane can do, give you the data and take you to the place where it's happening."
KAI T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic advanced trainer aircraft. The T-50 is also being marketed as a candidate for the United States Air Force's next-generation T-X trainer programme.
The TA-50 light attack variant has been ordered by Indonesia. The Philippines ordered 12 units of the FA-50 multirole light variant.