The RAAF’s next generation advanced jet trainer could feature a cockpit configurable to emulate a F-35 or Super Hornet but in an airframe substantially cheaper to buy and operate than the actual combat aircraft.
Boeing says this ability to act as a combat aircraft surrogate is an emerging capability of its T-7A Red Hawk jet trainer, now entering service with the US Air Force.
These could replace the RAAF’s fleet of 33 BAE Systems Hawk Mk.127 Lead-in Fighters, on which pilots transition from initial flight training to actual combat aircraft.
The Hawks entered service in November 2000 and have delivered sterling service, preparing a generation of fast jet aircrew for service in F/A-18 Classic Hornets, Super Hornets, Growlers and F-35A aircraft.
Most recently the Hawks have undergone a significant upgrade which adds simulated radar, EW systems, digital mapping, enhanced ground proximity warning and traffic collision and avoidance.
Included was replacement of legacy simulators and training aids by three full mission simulators supplied by CAE.
Defence's current plan is to retire these aircraft by 2032 by which time Hawk airframes will be at or near their third decade. Unless the Hawk replacement program is deferred following the recent Defence Strategic Review (DSR), new aircraft are planned to be acquired through Project Air 6002 Phase 1, with the current schedule calling for contract signature by 2027 and entry to service from 2030.
Boeing announced its interest in pitching T-7A for the RAAF at the Avalon airshow in February.
Since then, it has delivered the first two of up to 351 aircraft to the USAF. Boeing sees a global market of as many as 1,300 aircraft.
Boeing Vice President, Air Dominance Business Development and Strategy, Donn Yates said the single biggest differentiator of T-7A is its open mission system architecture and digital systems.
“If you want to modify the aircraft or the systems or the training systems using the open mission system architecture, you can do that into perpetuity at speed,” he said.
Yates said F-35 was an outstanding aircraft but it was expensive to operate. Hence the emerging concept of surrogacy – emulating one type of aircraft in another.
He said the best way to illustrate this concept was the USAF’s B-2A stealth bomber which a front line pilot might fly once or twice a month, then train on a simulator. To maintain flight currency, B-2A pilots fly T-38C jet trainers, an aircraft which first flew in the late 1950s.
“Imagine in a T-7A, we could make the displays look like a Super Hornet….or an F-35. You name the aircraft. We could make the stick and throttle with the full hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS) switchology,” he said.
“I could give a young pilot an emulated fifth gen experience at about US$8-10,000 cost per flying hour, versus the cost per flying hour of one of the front line aircraft.”
“This idea of surrogacy is starting to gain significant traction around the world and we think we are at the forefront of that discussion.”
T-7A is a joint development between Boeing and Saab, which Boeing says is designed for ease of maintenance and reduced operating costs. Saab builds the aircraft’s back end, other than vertical and horizontal stabilisers, in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Yates said T-7A was designed as a trainer first, with potential to operate as a light combat aircraft down the road.
“Many of our competitors were built as light attack light combat aircraft first. They became trainers after that. It’s a different approach and that was because were going after the air force TX competition,” he said.
Yates said the RAAF was "very interested" in the T-7A.
“They have some other priorities that they need to look at. We will be standing by to offer assistance if and when they call,” he said.