Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said the decision by the Northrop-BAE Systems Plc and Raytheon-Leonardo SpA teams to leave the T-X program came after regular dialogue with industry partners -- talks that he said made the request for proposal "more robust."
The process led to a series of updates to the request and allowed the service to more clearly spell out what it's looking for in a new trainer to replace the T-38 Talon, he said.
"What we tried new this time … we went through a number of draft request for proposals, and every time we went out with a draft, we got back from [industry] as intended an idea of what they have to deliver, and what they feel is a reasonable capability," Goldfein said Tuesday at a breakfast with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.
In total, the service received more than 1,300 recommendations from the defense industry, he said. The companies' feedback led to an extended but ultimately more inclusive dialogue about what the service needs for its new trainer, he added.
"Some of them along the way said, 'You know what, now that we have a better sense of what the customer's looking for, and what the other competitors have, we're going to make a business decision not to jump into this race,' " he said.
The general said he's pleased the program remains competitive.
"Right now, what we have is two competitors that have a very good sense of what we're looking for -- I'd be concerned if we only had one competitor … but as long as we've got a competition, and a really informed competition … I think we're in a pretty good place," he said.
Goldfein didn't specify which "two competitors" he was referring to, but the reference is noteworthy and may bolster a Bloomberg Government report that the Air Force competition is favoring defense giants Lockheed and Boeing.
After all, as many as four competitors may still try to bid for the program -- Boeing Co.-Saab; Lockheed Martin Corp.-Korea Aerospace Industries; Sierra Nevada Corp.-Turkish Aerospace; and Stavatti Aerospace Ltd., according to the BGOV report.
The Air Force wants to buy 350 new trainers to replace the aging Talon, first produced by Northrop in 1959. Trainers 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.
The Air Force announced Dec. 30 it began accepting bids for the contract, which is expected to be awarded this year.
Before dropping out of the program, Northrop was the only aerospace company going up against Boeing Co. for a new, "clean-sheet" design, though other companies are working on modified designs of existing trainers.
Before leaving, Raytheon and Leonardo were offering a modified design of the T-100 jet trainer. The Waltham, Massachusetts-based company known more for its missiles and the Italian defense company butted heads over Leonardo's inability to drop costs by nearly a third, Defense News reported.
Now, Boeing, collaborating with Saab, is the only team to offer a brand-new design. Lockheed and KAI are offering modification designs to the T-50.
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.
Goldfein also said the T-X competition holds "great promise" for future acquisition programs by including an ability to credit contractors for supplying hardware for lower-than-expected costs.
He said, "There are those things that we actually value above threshold that if you were able to deliver for a better price point, we will actually give you credit for bringing that [idea] in above threshold."