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T-X jets
The U.S. Air Force has selected the Boeing T-X advanced pilot training system, which features an all-new aircraft designed, developed and flight-tested by Boeing and Saab. (Boeing Photo / John Parker)

The U.S. Air Force has awarded Boeing a contract worth up to $9.2 billion for a new fleet of T-X training jets that it originally thought would cost twice as much.

In today’s announcement, the Air Force said the deal covers the purchase of 351 T-X aircraft, 46 simulators and the associated ground equipment to replace its 57-year-old fleet of T-38 Talon training jets. There’s an option to raise the purchase to up to 475 jets and 120 simulators.

The original service cost estimate was $19.7 billion for 351 aircraft, the Air Force said.

“This new aircraft will provide the advanced training capabilities we need to increase the lethality and effectiveness of future Air Force pilots,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a news release. “Through competition we will save at least $10 billion on the T-X program.”

Overseas orders could boost sales of next-generation training jets well beyond $20 billion over the next decade, according to a market analysis by the Virginia-based Teal Group. In a preview of today’s announcement, Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia said the T-X was the focus of “the last undecided U.S. military aircraft competition for many years to come.”

Boeing and its risk-sharing partner, Sweden’s Saab, beat out a team-up involving Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries as well as a bid from Leonardo DRS, a U.S. subsidiary of Italy’s Leonardo aerospace firm.

Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said in a statement that the win was “the culmination of years of unwavering focus by the Boeing and Saab team.”

“It is a direct result of our joint investment in developing a system centered on the unique requirements of the U.S. Air Force,” she said. “We expect T-X to be a franchise program for much of this century.”

More than 90 percent of the plane will be made in America. Boeing said the project will support more than 17,000 jobs in 34 states, with much of the work done at Boeing’s facilities in St. Louis.

An initial $813 million order covers development and delivery of the first five aircraft and seven simulators. Those first jets are due to arrive at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, in 2023. Over the following decade, the Air Force’s undergraduate pilot training bases in Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi will make the transition from the T-38 to the T-X.

Pilots will use the T-38 training jets to develop and maintain their flying skills for combat-ready fighters and bombers,

“This is all about joint warfighting excellence; we need the T-X to optimize training for pilots heading into our growing fleet of fifth-generation aircraft,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. “This aircraft will enable pilot training in a system similar to our fielded fighters, ultimately enhancing joint lethality.”

NASA astronauts frequently use the T-38s for training and transport, and will eventually use the T-X jets in the same way.

Today’s announcement is the latest in a string of successes for Boeing’s defense programs. Last month, Boeing won an $805 million contract to build a fleet of MQ-25 robotic refueling planes for the Navy. And earlier this week, Boeing announced a $2.4 billion deal with the Air Force to provide its MH-139 helicopters as replacements for the Vietnam War-era UH-1N “Huey” helicopters that are used to protect America’s intercontinental ballistic missile bases.

We’ll be discussing Boeing’s defense programs and other topics with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg next week at the GeekWire Summit. It’s not too late to get your tickets.

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