The Commonwealth’s Request For Information (RFI) for its proposed Lead In Fighter Trainer (LIFT) program to be delivered under Air 6002 Phase 1 closed on Friday, eliciting responses from at least three companies.
Air 6002 Phase 1 is a $4 to $5 billion program between 2022 and 2033 to replace the current LIFT capability, which is a system of simulators and training devices, based on the BAE Systems Hawk Mk.127 platform. The Planned Withdrawal Date (PWD) for the Hawk is currently set at 2026 and the new program aims to deliver a replacement capability that will be in service until around 2050. Beyond the RFI however, the Commonwealth is yet to define its requirements for the future LIFT capability and has not released any further milestones.
The RFI itself calls for a solution which has the primary role of training RAAF fast jet pilots and weapons systems operators (WSOs) in transition from the Pilatus PC-21 to the F/A-18F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and F-35 Lightning II platforms. A secondary role is to support the ADF, either as a friendly or adversary force.
The solution is required to be “configurable and scalable” supported by a Defence Aviation Safety Authority (DASA) approved organisation and, in its secondary ADF support role, be capable of representing 4.0 and 4.5 generation forces and able to employ both kinetic and non-kinetic effects. While the document does not specify a military off the shelf (MOTS) solution, it does require respondents to state whether their proposed platform is either in service with, or is being acquired by, other defence forces. The Australian Industry Capability (AIC) aspect seeks to maximise opportunities for Australian industry.
Boeing Defence Australia
Boeing Defence Australia announced on August 2nd that it had submitted a response to the RFI, with a proposal based on the T-7A Red Hawk platform now under development for the US Air Force.
“The T-7 stands apart as a compelling solution for Australia’s future training requirements. We believe it meets Australia’s current and future fast-jet training needs with its next generation system that combines live, virtual and synthetic training requirements,” commented BDA vice president and general manager, Scott Carpendale.
The US Air Force will acquire 351 T-7As as part of its T-X program to replace the elderly Northrop T-38 Talon and expects an Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2024, with Final Operational Capability (FOC) to follow in 2034. The flight test program is currently 80 per cent complete at the current time and a Boeing spokesperson said the program is on track to meet the USAF’s entry into service requirements.
The USAF T-7A variant is not required to employ live weapons and it is not yet clear if the development of such a capability for export customers would affect Air 6002 timelines, or who would pay for it to be undertaken, however Boeing has previously said that the program has sufficient flexibility to accommodate export customers.
Korea Aerospace Industries
Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) had not responded to ADM’s request for information on any likely bid by press time, but the South Korean manufacturer is expected to have proposed a solution based on its T-50 Golden Eagle platform.
The T-50 variant is an advanced trainer, but the aircraft is also produced as a Lead-In Fighter Trainer/Light Combat Aircraft (LIFT/LCA) as the TA-50, and as a multi-role fighter (FA-50). Across the three variants the aircraft is already in service in the Asia-Pacific region, with the air forces of South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines and also with the Iraqi Air Force.
Italy’s Leonardo has confirmed that is has responded to the Air 6002 RFI, with a solution based on its M-346 Master advanced trainer/LIFT aircraft. The M-346 is in service with several air forces around the world, including Italy, Israel and Poland and regionally by the Republic of Singapore Air Force, albeit with their aircraft physically based in Europe. The company is also developing a light fighter version, equipped with a radar and weapons capability, known as the M-346FA.
The Leonardo proposal is to replace the Hawk with the M-346 in the fast-jet training role immediately, while allowing the existing platform to continue in its ADF support role for several years longer.
“Our proposition to the ADF is that they can use the right solution at the right time without compromise. The RAAF can immediately have the best available solution for LIFT and advanced training, saving the life of the Hawk 127 fleet for the less technologically demanding mission such as ADF combat support,” a Leonardo spokesperson said to ADM.
The spokesperson added that the M-346 is already performing in the fast-jet transition role to the F-35 in Italian and Israeli service and will be doing the same for Poland and Singapore in the future.
“We are confident that our M-346 is a perfect match for Australia’s short-term requirements for LIFT and advanced training, but also in the longer term for ADF combat support,” the spokesperson said.
BAE Systems Australia
The Hawk Mk.127 has recently undergone upgrade to essentially the same standard as the RAF’s new-build Hawk T.2 under the Lead In Fighter Capability Assurance Program (Hawk LIFCAP) and is currently providing fast-jet transition training to the RAAF’s F-35, Super Hornet and Growler fleets. The aircraft is celebrating 20 years of operations in Australia this year and, despite the 2026 PWD being set some time back the average airframe age, in terms of flying hours, is only around one-third of its verified fatigue life.
Speaking with ADM recently, Head Air Force Capability Air Vice Marshal Cath Roberts said that, while Defence is yet to fully define its requirements, the option of retaining the Hawk will be considered in the Air 6002 context. Post-LIFCAP, Australia has signed a Commander’s Intent agreement with the UK, which is intended to create a “scalable, flexible, sustainable support and capability enhancement solution for the UK and Australian Hawk that delivers the required output at the optimal cost”.
This agreement sets the framework for future sustainment synergies should Hawk prove to be the preferred solution to Air 6002, including a spiral capability development upgrade process to ensure the platform and training systems continue to meet the Commonwealth’s requirements as they evolve.
“As part of our current role as the Hawk platform steward we have answered the Commonwealth’s questions as part of the RFI,” explained BAE Systems Australia’s director Aircraft Sustainment and Training Andrew Chapman. “We’re working on the basis that, with two-thirds of the Hawk’s fatigue life remaining, we think it is absolutely the most cost-effective way moving forward.”