President Donald Trump has repeatedly pledged to rebuild the military, while simultaneously lamenting weapons' costs.
Given budget impasses on Capitol Hill, his big spending plans have been met with a healthy dose of skepticism. But to better understand how America's armed forces could truly undergo a "great rebuilding" as costs come down, look no further than the U.S. Air Force's Advanced Pilot Training competition, known as the T-X Trainer.
The T-X Trainer is one of the biggest defense contracts currently up for grabs. With a $16.3 billion stated program of record, the Air Force plans to purchase 350 next-generation jet trainers that would be used to teach new pilots to fly fighters including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-22 Raptor, and of course, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Air Force wants those future planes operational by 2024. The contract is, for now, expected to be awarded at the end of this year.
The plan to replace the rapidly aging fleet of existing trainers has been a long time coming: the currently used T-38 Talons, made by Northrop Grumman, have been in service since the early 1960s, and experts say they won't last past 2030.
"I think the public would be surprised to find out that the average age for a trainer today, the T-38, is nearly 50 years old, and that the mission-capable rate is around 62 percent," says Howard Rubel, a managing director at Jefferies, covering defense stocks.
For most high-performance aircraft, the goal is a mission-capable rate
After a dramatic shift in offerings that involved both Raytheon and Northrop Grumman recently dropping out, the T-X Trainer competition comes down to three main teams: Lockheed Martin, partnered with Korea Aerospace Industries; Boeing, partnered with Saab; and Italian contractor Leonardo, partnered with its own U.S. subsidiary DRS Technologies.
Lockheed's offering is the T-50A, an upgraded version of the T-50 Golden Eagle that South Korean pilots currently train in. Boeing has built a "clean sheet" trainer from the ground up directly to the Air Force's contract specifications, spending what analysts estimate is $1 billion to $3 billion of its own money on development.