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BAE Systems teams with Northrop on T-X

BAE Systems announced Monday that Northrop Grumman will be its "manufacturing lead" on the jet trainer it wants to build for the Air Force's T-X program, although it was an open question when -- or whether -- that program would get underway.

Company officials from BAE and Northrop briefed reporters at the Air Force Association's trade show outside Washington, arguing their combined experience building jet trainers would make their two-seat Hawk jet the cheapest, but best, option.

BAE's "team lead" for T-X, Bob Wood, said tomorrow's pilots will need training that's advanced as the fifth-generation fighters they'll fly in service: “You really want pilots to train the same way they’re going to fight, and you really want to teach them to manage the sensor flow.” Although BAE's Hawk doesn't have a radar, Wood said it can be set up to emulate whatever sensors that commanders want; Royal Air Force trainees see a version of their Typhoon's sensors and U.S. Air Force trainees would see displays just like the F-22 or F-35.

T-X is slowly building into what could become the next big aerospace defense battle in Washington: In addition to BAE and Northrop; Lockheed Martin; Boeing and Italian aero-conglomerate Finmeccanica all plan to make their own offers.

But the Air Force's requirements for the program aren't yet clear, and neither is the service's timeline for how and when it would like to get moving. Wood said Monday that BAE and Northrop could get moving "tomorrow" if necessary on building their offering, although they have not decided yet where in the U.S. it would be assembled.

So given the Air Force's official reticence about its own intentions for T-X, how can these defense giants be confident it will come into existence? Wood said it's only a matter of time: The Air Force's fleet of T-38 trainers is five decades old and many aircraft are at or beyond their service lives. Plus, he said, the Air Force will face a training "bow wave" -- Buzz's term, not his -- as it begins to add F-35s in greater numbers. It's too expensive to train new pilots in single-seat, front-line fighters, so eventually the Air Force will need a two-seat trainer to free up its F-22s and F-35s for real-world service.

Or so everyone in the aerospace game is hoping.

UPDATE: Air Force Secretary Michael Donley wouldn't talk at all about T-X in a press briefing at the AFA show on Monday afternoon. All he said was the Air Force recognizes it'll need to replace its T-38s, and that's it. Our colleague John Reed got a similar response from another top official. Conclusion: Even though the aerospace industry considers this a priority, the Air Force clearly does not.

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