Boeing [BA] said on Feb. 23 that U.S. production of the U.S. Air Force T-7A Red Hawk trainer has begun at the company’s St. Louis plant, as Boeing awaits delivery of the aircraft’s aft section from Saab next month.

Flight testing may start late this year or early next year, as Boeing looks into possible variants of the digitally designed trainer for light fighter/light attack missions domestically and abroad.

As the Air Force and the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) run a tactical aircraft (TACAIR) study to inform future fighter needs, including a possible clean sheet design for an F-16 replacement, Boeing appears to believe that the Red Hawk may be well suited for such a role.

Chuck Dabundo, Boeing’s T-7 program manager, said that Boeing has discussed T-7  adversary “red air,” light fighter/light attack, and training variations of the Air Force Red Hawk with a variety of potential customers, including the Air Force, other DoD agencies, and foreign nations.

Boeing believes that it will be able to leverage the aircraft’s open architecture/fly-by-wire flight control system and the extensive communications suite for future needs.

Converting the T-7 to a low-end fighter would require adding hard points on the wing and potentially the center line to carry ordnance and other stores, expanding upon the aircraft’s communications system, and providing defensive aids and other electronic systems to give the Red Hawk a TACAIR capability, Dabundo said last week.

Modifying the Red Hawk for a light attack mission, weapons payloads, and timelines for such modifications would depend “on the requirements that a particular customer will have,” Dabundo told reporters in a Feb. 23 briefing in advance of the Air Force Association 2021 Virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium (VAWS) that is to begin Feb. 24.

“The basic platform we wouldn’t expect a change, but we may have to add hard points to the wing, or to defensive [systems] so that development timeline would really be very dependent on what the requirements were for that specific customer,” he said.

Phase 1 of the flight test program using production representative jets (PRJ) has featured inverted flight, envelope expansion, and subsystem verification (Defense Daily, Sept. 14, 2020).

Phase 2 of the flight test program will involve engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) aircraft and will verify the previous PRJ testing, as well as add cargo pod and high angle of attack testing and forcing the aircraft out of control to ensure it can safely recover.

Dabundo said last September that Boeing has received an “unprecedented” level of interest from potential foreign customers who may want the standard Red Hawk trainer or a variant of the aircraft as a fighter attack jet.

In September 2018, Boeing and Saab won a potentially $9.4 billion Air Force contract for 46 simulators and 351 aircraft, which are expected to replace the service’s aging T-38 Talon fleet. The award was the culmination of five to six years of work by Boeing, Dabundo said.