Lockheed Martin [LMT] has cemented its plan for the Air Force’s T-X competition and will offer a modified version of the T-50 aircraft it produces with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) instead of a clean sheet design, company executives said Thursday.

The company completed about 80 percent of detailed design work necessary for subsonic and supersonic training aircraft, but ultimately found it would not be able to meet the Air Force’s initial operational capability deadline of 2024 with a clean sheet plane, said Rob Weiss, executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs, more commonly known as Skunk Works.

“If you’re going to start with a clean sheet design and hit that IOC of 2024, there’s a substantial and unacceptable amount of concurrency with the development program and the production program, which means you’re having to buy airplanes well ahead of where you’ll be in the development program,” he told reporters during a briefing.

Lockheed Martin has since stopped development of both clean sheet designs and has focused its efforts on the T-50A, which it will propose for

The T-50A, which Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries will offer for the T-X competition.
The T-50A, which Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries will offer for the T-X competition.

the T-X program. The T-50 has been in production for more than a decade, and the South Korean, Indonesian, Philippine and Iraqi air forces have clocked more than 100,000 flight hours in the cockpit. For the T-X program, Lockheed Martin and KAI will add four modifications to the aircraft to meet Air Force requirements: embedded training, an open systems architecture, a receptacle for in-flight refueling and a fifth-generation cockpit.

The company is standing up a Final Assembly and Check Out facility in Greenville, S.C., that will be operational by the end of the year, Weiss said. Many of the major structural parts of the airframe—including the wings, fuselage and tail—will be produced in South Korea and then shipped to the FACO, while the General Electric [GE] engine and the majority of the aircraft’s systems will be produced in the United States.

 Lockheed Martin and KAI have already modified two existing T-50 planes with the block upgrades, he said.

 “We’ll essentially have the production airplanes finished in a few months,” he said. “By the end of this year, those two production planes will be in Greenville and they will be ready for flight evaluations, and we strongly encourage the U.S. Air Force to take advantage of that opportunity to do a flight evaluation of these aircraft.”

Those two planes are currently undergoing ground based testing and will make their first flights this summer with Lockheed Martin pilots before flying to Greenville, said J.R. Wildridge, T-50 international business development director.

One of the biggest differences between the T-50A and the T-38 is the inclusion of sensors and datalinks on the aircraft that simulate the weapons, radar and other systems on their aircraft, a concept Lockheed Martin calls “embedded training.” For instance, during a flight, the radar could show a simulated threat that the pilot will have to locate and engage with a simulated weapon. Currently, a T-38 pilot can only train for those kinds of scenarios in a ground-based simulator.

“It allows us to very economically and quickly train a number of scenarios,” said Mike Griswold, its director of T-50 business development. “You start out small, and then create complex scenarios over time.”

The T-50A cockpit was designed by the same engineering team that created the F-35 cockpit, allowing for a high degree of commonality. The biggest difference is a head up display (HUD) that would not be found in the F-35, where pilots receive such data directly to their helmets.

“We still have to train pilots for those aircraft which have a HUD: F-15s, F-16s,” Griswold said. A super advanced helmet like the F-35’s was not part of the T-X requirements.

Other modifications include an aerial refueling receptacle in the same location as the F-16, F-22 and F-35 and an open systems architecture that will allow the Air Force to make changes to the mission systems suite on the jet, Griswold said.

The president’s fiscal year 2017 budget request contained $12.4 million for T-X, and the Air Force estimates it will spend $1.62 billion to develop and procure the aircraft and associated training systems. From Lockheed Martin’s point of view, that’s more money than is necessary, Griswold said.

 “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We think it gives the Air Force a lot of flexibility on how they move forward,” he said. For instance, the service could accelerate the schedule, start production early, move its initial operational capability forward and start retiring its legacy T-38 fleet sooner.

Although Lockheed Martin will not be pursuing a clean sheet design for the T-X competition, some of its competitors are. Northrop Grumman [NOC], the manufacturer of the T-38, is partnering with BAE Systems and L-3 Communications [LLL] to put forward a new design. Boeing [BA] and Saab also have collaborated on a new aircraft.

Textron AirLand [TXT] plans to offer its Scorpion jet. Finmeccanica’s Alenia Aermacchi could partner up with a U.S. firm to offer its T-100. It split with its last partner, General Dynamics [GD], in 2015.

The Air Force is slated to release a request for proposals for the program this fall.