Here’s a quick quiz about U.S. air power. Question One: What do the Air Force’s F-15, F-16, and F-22 fighters all have in common? Answer: They are all operated by pilots who learned to fly jets on the T-38 Talon trainer. Question Two: What else do they do they have in common? Answer: They all joined the force after the last T-38 was produced in 1972.
The answers to these two questions explain why Air Force leaders are determined to find a replacement for the T-38. The Talon has been around for a long, long time — 45 years on average for the T-38s still in the fleet — and planes that old typically start to exhibit age-related problems like metal fatigue, corrosion and parts obsolescence. If this were just a maintenance issue, then the service could continue spending over a million dollars a week on upgrades to keep the T-38s airworthy. But it has gotten to the point where there is also a concern about safety.
The turning point came in 2008, when two pilots were killed in a crash traced to a metal fatigue. The Air Education and Training Command had already been pondering what sort of next-generation trainer was needed for several years before that crash occurred, but the cause of the crash raised questions about whether T-38s were beginning to develop the kinds of age-related problems that are hard to identify through normal maintenance procedures. There isn’t much experience with operating jets that are half a century old, so projections of future service life are somewhat suspect.
This isn’t just an issue for fighter pilots, because the T-38 is also used to train pilots for much of the long-range bomber force and for the A-10 Thunderbolt tank-killer. Talon has served the Air Force, the Navy and America’s allies well, but the average number of flight hours on each T-38 airframe is now over twice what they were designed to fly, and there comes a time in the life of any aircraft when further modifications either can’t make them safe or can’t make them affordable. The T-38 Talon is rapidly approaching that juncture.
The good news is that there are several proven replacement aircraft from which to choose, modern trainers already developed for foreign air forces that can be bought and fielded quickly. And that’s what the Air Force needs — something that can be brought into the force fast. If it goes through the usual process for developing a new aircraft, it will take a decade to come up with a successor, and even that depends on keeping the lawyers at bay (protests are now a reflex for some companies).
What the Air Force needs is an off-the-shelf solution that can meet the requirements of its training community as soon as possible — before T-38s start falling out of the sky due to metal fatigue, or the fleet gets grounded because service leaders are unwilling to send their young pilots aloft in a trainer that might be unsafe. Yes money is tight, and yes the Air Force already has multiple efforts under way to replace aging bombers, fighters and tankers. But this need can’t wait. If the Air Force doesn’t have a modern, reliable training jet in which to prepare its pilots for combat, then who is going to fly all those other planes when current pilots retire?