Interview: Col VanDusen, T-X training aircraft programme manager

Andrew Elwell

Following confirmation in the President’s budget on Tuesday that the T-X programme – the USAF’s next generation military flight training aircraft system – will receive funding to the tune of $600 million, Defence IQ spoke to its programme manager. Colonel Dale VanDusen is Head of Programmes for the US Air Force Life Cycle Management Centre (AFLCMC) and directly responsible for the procurement and management for all flight training aircraft used by the Air Force.

Thank you for joining us today Colonel VanDusen. After the President’s announcement earlier this week, can you confirm exactly how the US DoD budget will impact the T-X?

The President’s 2015 budget proposes T-X funding in 2015-2019 at levels that would enable the acquisition activities essential to meet programme objectives, including a contract award within that period. While the US Congress still needs to review the budget and create bills to authorise and appropriate funds, the President’s Budget is an acknowledged indicator that DoD is proceeding with T-X.

The fact that the T-X is being funded even during a period of fairly drastic cuts at the DoD surely signals recognition at the highest level that this is a vital project to enhance future capabilities - what are your thoughts on why this is seen as such an important programme for the Air Force?

Certainly, a capable pilot is vital to every manned aircraft. T-X is most important because our fighter aircraft fleet has changed significantly. T-X will enable us to produce aviators ready for 5th generation fighter cockpits, while negating the need and cost for the current F-16 ‘bridge course’. T-X trained pilots will be more capable than those graduating from the T-38 Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals course, having successfully mastered higher performance maneuvering, advanced systems, and advanced flight controls. Further, the T-38 future sustainment costs are uncertain. The T-X aim is to provide better capability at more predicable costs so that the USAF can provide the best pilots to F-22, F-35, F-16, etc units. And with T-X being a modern advanced trainer, we are looking hard at whether overall training costs can be reduced by best exploiting existing virtual and constructive capabilities.

What are the next steps in the programme now that you have the green light?

Funding alone does not give us the green light…it does get us on the road and to the stop light, though. Next step is for Headquarters Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense to corporately approve T-X requirements and then decide on the acquisition phase of entry. That direction is the best analogy to the green light. Once moving past that, my office will be solidly focused on Department approval of an acquisition strategy, extensive other program documentation, the Request for Proposal (RFP), and awarding a contract.

When is an RFP expected?

At this time, my draft timeline is to award a contract in fiscal year 2018, so a draft RFP and perhaps even the final RFP would be issued in 2016. The ultimate schedule driver is to draw down (retire) the T-38 fleet on its planned timeline of 2023-29. So, subject to approval by Headquarters Air Force, a likely Initial Operating Capability (IOC) target for T-X is 2023. With long-lead items a factor, aircraft manufacturing time, airworthiness, militarization, operational testing, and more to be performed, a medium risk schedule drives us to that estimated 2018 contract award target. A lot of communication within the Department and will Industry will be necessary to meet such a timeline.

Col VanDusen will be speaking at the upcoming Military Flight Training (MFT) conference in London later this month. Following the announcement that the T-X programme will be funded by the Pentagon after months of uncertainty, Military Flight Training is the must-attend event for all decision makers and operators involved in delivering training and simulation services to global Air Forces, Armies and Navies, providing them with an unparalleled opportunity to network with leading military and industry decision makers. Download the agenda below to find out more.