The U.S. Air Force has opened a potentially $16 billion competition to develop a new T-X trainer jet.
The service on Friday announced it has begun accepting bids for the contract, which is expected to be awarded in 2017.
The Air Force wants to buy 350 aircraft to replace its current Northrop Grumman Corp.-made T-38 Talon trainers at a time when the service needs to replenish its fighter pilot ranks.
"In terms of both providing realistic, holistic training and reducing flying hours on our fifth-generation platforms, T-X is a program we've got to get right," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in the statement.
Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, commander of Air Education and Training Command, added, "Pilot training gaps widen and continue to do so every year as the service brings on more fifth-generation aircraft."
With the Air Force seeking more fighter pilots and ramping up fifth-generation fighter training, the goal of the program is to acquire two-seat trainer jets that mimic the combat aircraft pilots will fly.
For example, more than 50 pilots have already been trained to operate the F-35A Lightning II at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, since the first Joint Strike Fighter touched down at the base in 2014.
"Our ability to get the most out of our fifth-generation aircraft depends on success in the Advanced Pilot Training program" also known as the T-X program, Goldfein said.
The contract designates the first aircraft to reach initial operational capability in fiscal year 2024 or earlier.
The so-called request for proposals covers delivery of the first five aircraft,including engineering and manufacturing development, low-rate initial production, full-rate production and sustainment transition support, the release said.
Additional provisions are included for ground support systems, "such as training systems, mission planning and processing systems, support equipment and spares," the release said.
Boeing Co., collaborating with Saab, is one of two teams competing for the program with a new design. But unlike Northrop, Boeing is the only team so far to offer a twin canted vertical tail design, mimicking fourth- and fifth-generation fighter jets such as the F-22 Raptor, F-35 and F/A-18 Hornet.
Other vendor teams, such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Korea Aerospace Industries, and Raytheon Co., Leonardo-Finmeccanica and CAE Inc., are offering modification designs to current aircraft, but are not competing in clean-sheet designs.
Sierra Nevada Corp. and Turkish Aerospace Industries are also reportedly partnering on their own design for a T-X trainer, one that could be more fuel-efficient, according to Aviation Week.
The T-38 aircraft, first produced by Northrop in 1959, is used to prep pilots for "front-line fighter and bomber aircraft such as the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-15C Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, B-1B Lancer, A-10 Thunderbolt and F-22 Raptor," according to the service.