The Navy’s Next Jet Trainer Won’t Be Able To Land Or Take Off From An Aircraft Carrier – The Drive

Posted: May 18, 2020 at 6:46 pm

It's not clear from the contracting notice if the land-based design would actually be the only replacement for the T-45, as NAVAIR itself has made clear that it will only be able to meet "certain requirements" for the UJTS program. The War Zone has already reached out for additional information and clarification.

It's certainly true that the T-45s, of which the Navy and the Marine Corps have around 194 in service in total, the oldest of which are now more than three decades old, are increasingly in need of a replacement. The Navy had originally planned to phase them all out in 2018, but, five years before, made to decision to instead extend their service life through 2042. The Goshawks fleet's readiness rates have slipped in recent years, raising concerns about the service's ability to train an adequate number of pilots each year. In 2019, the Government Accountability Office also warned about potential shortfalls in available aircraft as jets went through the planned Service Life Extension Program.

The T-45 fleet also suffered a worrying and deadly spate of hypoxia incidents between 2016 and 2017. Various fixes to the aircraft themselves, as well as the Navy's operating procedures, have reduced the number of subsequent physiological events in the past three years, but identifying the underlying root causes has proven difficult.

Buying an existing land-based design made to Navy specifications, but without having to modify it to withstand the stresses of catapult launches and arrested landings, could offer a low-cost, low-risk path for the Navy to acquire new jet trainers. One obvious option would be to acquire a version of the U.S. Air Force's new T-7A Red Hawk, the production of which started in January. The War Zone has already detailed the many possible future roles for the T-7A, or derivatives thereof, in the past.

There are also a number of other proven and in-production land-based jet trainer designs available, including the losing entrants for the Air Force's T-X competition, which the T-7A won. The Air Force itself recently exploring buying a small number of South Korean-made KAI T-50 Golden Eagles to support its own transformational fighter jet pilot training plans. That service canceled its proposed sole-source purchase of the T-50s in March and now says it will hold an open competition.

At the same time, whatever cost-savings the Navy might find by pursuing this course of action might be offset, at least in part, by changes that would then be necessary to its fighter pilot training pipeline. Those aviators will still need to conduct carrier qualifications and will need suitable aircraft in which to perform them. Even simply using existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to meet these requirements would increase the number of flight hours those jets have to dedicate to training missions, potentially pulling them away from other activities. These full-up fighters are also costly to operate.

It is worth noting that the Navy is making substantial investments in developing and fielding various technologies to help automate carrier landings. It is possible that this could eventually reduce the amount of required carrier qualification training the service feels is required, but it wouldn't eliminate it entirely. At the same time, carrier qualifications have been getting steadily pushed farther and farther down the pipeline.

The Navy has already done something broadly similar with regards to its C-2 Greyhound andE-2 Hawkeye aircraft. Prospective pilots destined to fly those aircraft conduct much of their training in the T-44, a variant of the Beechcraft King Air, which is also not carrier-capable. It's not clear how that training pipeline may also now change as the C-2s get replaced by the CMV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor. Still, as long as manned fighter jets operate from its carriers, there will be a need to have those pilots practice the uniquely complicated process of landing on, as well as taking off from, those flattops.

Regardless, the Navy's plans to buy non-carrier-capable jet trainers to replace its T-45s, even in part, points to major changes coming in how the service prepares prospective fighter pilots for the challenges involved in joining its carrier air wings.

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