Interview: Col VanDusen, T-X program manager

Contributor:  Andrew Elwell
Posted:  02/18/2013  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   t-x | mft

Based at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, Colonel D.J. "Torch" VanDusen is Program Manager for T-X and eight other training aircraft. All answers, herein, can be attributed to Col VanDusen and his team. Additionally: He is a senior non-rated officer aircrew member, previously commanding the 630th Electronic Systems Squadron.  Having served tours in Afghanistan, Headquarters Air Force, and on the Joint Staff, he holds advanced degrees in engineering, international politics, and strategy.


Thank you for joining Defence IQ today Colonel VanDusen. By way of introduction could you please tell us a little about your background and more specifically about your role as Program Manager for the T-X APT?

As a career U.S. Air Force acquisition officer, my role is to now lead the materiel efforts toward a future Advanced Pilot Training system. That currently consists of conducting the planning and analysis to construct the most affordable program path possible. My role is key, but only one among many necessary to bring T-X to a reality. Many in the Pentagon must validate requirements and determine funding, industry will build the systems, and Air Education and Training Command (AETC) will employ and sustain the system to train pilots. They each have their key players and organizations.   

Could you please explain what the T-X program is and what is USAF hoping to achieve with it?

T-X is the yet un-named/un-numbered aircraft and accompanying ground system that will meet USAF advanced pilot training needs for the next several decades. Pilot candidates destined for fighter and bomber assignments will train in T-X from the time they complete basic pilot training in the T-6 Texan II, until they begin to fly their assigned aircraft, such as the B-1, F-15E, F-22, or F-35.  Currently, this advanced pilot training is conducted with the T-38C Talon. Additionally, new pilots destined for the F-22 fly the F-16D (the two-seat model) in preparation for Initial F-22 training. 

How do you expect this next generation trainer to improve on the long-serving T-38 Talon?

First entering service in 1961, the T-38 has been a workhorse, having trained over 71,000 US and allied pilots. However, it was never intended to operate for 50+ years. With an average age of 44.2 years, the fleet will soon be prohibitively expensive to keep flying. Even if we could afford that, the T-38 lacks certain capabilities to prepare pilots for 4+ and 5thgeneration fighters.  That is why we use the F-16D to "bridge" new pilots from the T-38 to the F-22.  Even though outstanding teams upgraded the T-38 engines, avionics, ejection seat, and structural service life in order to keep the jet a viable world-class trainer, we can only economically do so much. The T-38 capability gaps consist mainly of advanced systems training, aerial refueling, and sustained Gs. With T-X, we will no longer need to push those skill sets to later training programs, nor need the F-16D training "bridge" to the F-22. Finally, we are exploring options for incorporating embedded training capabilities into T-X. Emulated radars, warning receivers, and threat capabilities are in use now with other air forces and providing outstanding, economical training potential. If their cost can be low enough and provide solid return on investment, we might be interested in incorporating them into T-X.

At this stage, can you tell us what requirements the T-X likely to have?

To continue market analysis, and in support of HQ AETC, my program office released draft requirements for T-X and conducted an Industry Day. We received great feedback and dialogue.  These draft requirements currently include performing a specific amount of sustained Gs, anthropometric accommodations similar to that of the T-6 and F-35, possible boom air-refueling, and certain embedded training capabilities. Of prime importance is a low and affordable life cycle cost. The aircraft will not need to be supersonic, nor will it have a radar or other such combat systems to purchase or maintain; those are key to keeping costs low. 

What will this program mean for the flight training and simulation industry? I understand it's worth $7.5 billion - could you perhaps expand on how you think it may boost growth in the sector?

With a projected 350 T-X aircraft at 7 AETC training locations, and associated ground training systems, this is will be a major defense acquisition program. Overall investment costs (e.g. integration, test, and procurement) are projected to be over $10 billion. That is a big prize, and one that would set up the winner for even more of the world-wide market. In my position as a customer and service provider, I very much value the competition and the capabilities that industry brings to pilot training.

What are your thoughts on the future of flight training? Are we going in the right direction with the technologies that are in the pipeline or do we need to consider other aspects not currently being focused on?

Pilot training is important business! Any new capabilities or methods that produce 1) the same quality pilot at lower cost; 2) a better pilot for the same cost; or 3) a combination of both... well, everyone is interested in that. While AETC are the training professionals, we both have common understandings. There is potential for ground systems to play even greater roles in lowering costs and preparing students for more productive time in the air. That is why we will procure T-X as a family of systems, not as a separate aircraft and separate set of simulators. Further, all our market analysis to date leads me to professionally believe that the current array of embedded training capabilities (emulated radar, radar warning receivers, etc) could provide an outstanding return on investment. If we don't acquire such systems initially on the fleet, it is in our best interest to ensure T-X can affordably accommodate such capabilities in the future.        

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I am often asked about the scope of T-X. Right now, the need is documented for fulfilling AETC's advanced pilot training. This does not include U.S. Navy advanced pilot training; other current T-38 activities such as test support, Air Combat Command companion training, or aggressor air; nor does it include international partnering. We are aware those missions could benefit from T-X, however, they are not contained in the Initial Capabilities Document approved by the Department of Defense.

Andrew Elwell Contributor:   Andrew Elwell

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