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BAE Steps Up As Trainer Prime

BAE Systems, wading deep into what could be a threatening political landscape, declared it will act as prime contractor as it offers its Hawk Advanced Jet Training System for the Air Force's multi-billion dollar T-X program. The Air Force has said it wants to buy as many as 350 of the jet trainers.

While it is known formally as the Air Force Advanced Pilot Training Family of Systems, sensible people call it T-X. This would replace the aging T-38 trainer. Initial operation capability is set for 2017; an RFP may be out by the end of next year.

BAE has sold more than 900 of the planes around the world already and already it is being used as the trainer for pilots aspiring to the Joint Strike Fighter in the U.S. Navy, the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force.

But a careful reading of the company's comments at yesterday's formal announcement of the plan to bid as prime makes clear that BAE knows it may face a political campaign during which it is charged with being a foreign entry.

"We will pursue strategic partners in the U.S. to provide best value to the U.S. Air Force while investing in the U.S. industrial base," Larry Prior, executive VP of service sectors, said at the National Press Club. None of the three BAE execs at the event would discuss partners or cost, citing competitive reasons. BAE had built an early version of the pane with Boeing as the prime. Staying with Boeing would have given BAE political cover against any charges it offering a European product.

At the same time, while BAE Systems is a subsidiary of the British parent, it also has long acted as a U.S. prime on other programs and has a Special Security Agreement with the U.S. government that allows it to work with the intelligence community, Homeland Security and the Pentagon. Given how sharp the competition for defense dollars is getting, it would not be surprising to see a competitor try to paint them as damn furriners, much as Boeing tries to demonize EADS North America.

BAE says the training system they have developed will be the lowest cost and lowest risk offering.  "We absolutely know we can deliver at the lowest cost," BAE exec Sam Cole said.  The Hawk is already flying and the company has developed its training modules. That off-the-shelf offering should appeal to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Prior said.

Among the expected competitors are Likely competitors are Finmeccanica's twin-engine M346 and Lockheed Martin's KAI T-50. BAE execs argue that their single engine offering is much more cost effective and safer than a twin-engine.

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