The U.S. Air Force is expected to announce any day now its multi-billion-dollar impact decision on which company partnership will win its contract for the next generation of fighter-trainer jets, and an Alabama site is still in the hunt to build them.
Tuskegee’s Moton Field, home of the famous World War II fighter pilot school that trained America’s first black military aviators, the Tuskegee Airmen, would be the home of the T-100 project if the Italian-based Leonardo DRS company can win the bid.
It would be a major economic boost for Alabama’s fast-growing aviation industry, and an even more significant impact on the local economy in Macon and Lee counties, providing more than 750 jobs directly at the plant between Auburn and Montgomery, and possibly hundreds more jobs in subsidiary support roles.
“We feel like we still have a good shot at it,” said Macon County economic development director Joe Turnham.
But for Leonardo’s T-100 jet to win the bid, it’ll have to pull the upset over two tough competitors with longtime name recognition as two of the nation’s aviation giants.
Lockheed Martin has teamed with Korea Aerospace Industries to propose its T-50 jet for the contract.
Boeing has teamed with Saab, from Sweden, for what is known as a “clean-sheet design” of a jet specifically for this bid.
There are huge stakes involved. The Air Force is looking to replace the aging T-38 Talon and wants a new trainer jet that can better prepare its pilots to fly the F-35 fighter jet. It’s willing to spend up to $16 billion to get it.
Lockheed and Boeing are thought by many military and defense-industry experts to be the front-runners for the contract, but T-100 supporters say not so fast.
Reasons for hopeCEO Bill Lynn told Aviation Week last month that the T-100 is the lowest-risk solution for the Air Force.
“This would not be a good time for the Air Force to have things go off the rails in terms of schedule and budget,” Lynn said. “Having a mature, low-risk program is a strength.”
Lynn was referring to the T-100’s already-proven performance record and popular demand, something the company has in its favor by having other air forces already using it.
Israel, for example, uses a T-100 variation to train its pilots, and it’s hard to argue with Israeli military experts when they say something works, given that the Israeli military is among the most respected in the world.
But there are other reasons to hold high hopes for Tuskegee landing the project, Turnham says, and he raises good points.
The United States for several years, and certainly under current President Donald Trump, has vocalized the desire to buy American-made military goods from American-based companies.
Leonardo is Italian-based, but its partnerships range far and wide within the United States, and it has promised to build the T-100 in Alabama.
Lockheed and Boeing are stalwarts and iconic in American defense circles, yet both companies also are relying on international partners to develop their version of the next trainer jet.
Lockheed would be working with partners in South Korea, Boeing in Sweden.All three contenders promise spinoff jobs would be created with American companies in several states that would provide parts and supplies.
Then there are the political powers that matter.
Ranking senior members of Congress from all the states with an iron in the fire are making the same strong pitches and doing the same type of deal-making behind closed doors in efforts to win the contract.
Boeing and Lockheed have a lot of friends in Congress and in the military.
But once again, don’t count out Alabama.
Alabama’s senior senator is Richard Shelby, who is serving his sixth term and has risen to become chairman of the appropriations committee, making him one of the more powerful figures in the United States government.
The Air Force may be making the decision on what fighter-trainer jet it wants, but it will be Shelby and his committee that pays for it, observers quip.
That could weigh in Alabama’s favor.
The military role
Finally, there is the mission itself, and Alabama has quite nicely positioned itself to be on the same page with the Air Force.
It was a major coup for the state to have the Air National Guard fighter squadron in Montgomery to be one of only two Guard units in the nation to win selection as a future base for the F-35 fighter jet.
Yes, the same fighter jet for which the Air Force is looking to have its trainer jet used in preparing its pilots for combat.
The T-100, as the Israelis might say, is an excellent trainer for the F-35, and if an air base in Montgomery right down the road is flying F-35s, it’s a short haul for test flights or trial runs by T-100 pilots who eventually will move on to become the nation’s first line of defense.
Furthermore, Auburn University and Tuskegee University both have aviation programs already known as being among the best, along with other related degree programs that rapidly are growing in fields such as cyber security, engineering and technology.
Not far up the road is NASA’s major operations in Huntsville, and down the road are aviation facilities such as Airbus building jetliners in Mobile, all further testimony to what the seeds are becoming in Alabama as they grow and reach for the skies.
A decision nears
These factors added up make the T-100 less an underdog and more of a real player in the bid to win this far-reaching contract.
The Air Force repeatedly has said it would be ready to make its decision announcement this summer, and many officials have pinpointed the month of August for it.
The sky won’t fall should Alabama not get it.
But the horizon certainly is deep and wide if it does.
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By Troy Turner