NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.Lockheed Martin [LMT] is emphasizing the F-16 heritage in its T-X offering as it promotes the aircraft as the one with the lowest risk in the highly-anticipated contest.

Lockheed Martin is teaming with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) to bid KAI’s T-50 trainer for the Air Force’s T-X program. Lockheed Martin T-50 Test Pilot Mark Ward told reporters here Monday about 80 percent of the T-50 stems from the F-16, which Ward called the most successful fighter that has probably ever been built. Ward also said 70 percent of the T-50’s parts come from the F-16. 

Cockpit view of Lockheed Martin and KAI's T-50. Photo: Lockheed Martin.
Cockpit view of Lockheed Martin and KAI’s T-50. Photo: Lockheed Martin.

“Some people tell you this is an old airplane. This is not an old airplane,” Ward said here at the Air Force Association’s (AFA) annual convention. “We learned from F-16 technology…why wouldn’t we take advantage of the technology that we already know about the airplane and fold it into this.”

Lockheed Martin and KAI originally teamed in the early 1990s to build the T-50, Ward said, so it was natural for two companies to build in engineering and technology from the F-16, which was the dominant fighter aircraft at the time.

Ward said incorporating the F-16’s wing into the T-50 offering would be a boon to the Lockheed Martin-KAI team as it will provide low drag characteristics and excellent handling. Ward also said the T-50 is a lighter and a bit smaller aircraft with a lower wing load, which he said makes it a smoother and better turning airplane at slower speeds.

The T-50 also includes advanced and tuned flight controls. Ward said Lockheed Martin has been maturing the F-16’s flight controls for over 40 years and the company is now transferring those advances to the T-50. Ward said the T-50 will feature a full digital flight control system with data feedback from a block 60 refinement, making the T-50 more stable.

The T-50 features a displacement stick, which Ward said makes a big difference for how the airplane feels in the air. He said the displacement stick is the same type of stick found in modern fighters. The combination of the displacement stick and advanced flight controls, Ward said, makes the T-50 a smoother and even easier aircraft for a student pilot to handle.

The T-50 is a single engine jet, featuring General Electric‘s [GE] 404 engine, the same one offered in Boeing [BA] and Saab’s T-X offering. The companies are still hashing out their work share arrangement, according to a Lockheed Martin spokesman.

Lockheed Martin believes the T-50 is similar enough to the F-16, F-22 and F-35, all company products and the Air Force’s major fighters, to help avoid negative training and unnecessary sorties. Lockheed Martin believes the T-50 will create better pilots in less time for lower cost. This is by enabling students to focus their airmanship skills on improved aero performance, using digital flight controls with next generation air traffic management systems while operating from an anthropometrically-designed fifth generation cockpit, according to a Lockheed Martin statement.

T-X will replace the Air Force’s T-38 trainers. Initial operational capability (IOC) is planned for 2024. T-X could be worth as much as $8.8 billion.

Other companies interested in bidding for T-X include Boeing and Saab; Northrop Grumman [NOC] with L-3 Communications [LLL] and BAE Systems; Raytheon [RTN] with Leonardo, CAE [CAE] and Honeywell [HON] and possibly Textron [TXT].

Though the Air Force likes to call T-X a priority, Teal Group Vice President of Analysis Richard Aboulafia believes the service will have difficulty funding as such. The Air Force, he said, expects to buy 350 jets, plus possibly hundreds more for other customers and applications.

“Funding T-X is the biggest apparent impossibility,” Aboulafia said in a statement. “The Air Force has made its top objectives clear: F-35A, B-21 and KC-46 tanker. (This presents) huge challenges on their own, even before lower priorities such as T-X or the new Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) are funded.”

Aboulafia “assumes” the T-50 has the best chance of winning the T-X competition, but he admits with three other companies bidding, it’s tough to assume anything. Abolulafia believes that, despite long odds, contractors need to aggressively pursue the T-X contract because there are very few other new aircraft competitions available.

The final request for proposals (RFP) is expected by the end of 2016 (Defense Daily, Sept. 13).