These Are The Best Images Yet Of Northrop Grumman's T-38 Replacement That Could Have Been

The company with an illustrious pedigree for training USAF fast jet pilots cancelled their T-X entrant abruptly and with little explanation.

Scaled Composites

The consortium of Northrop Grumman and its subsidiary, the famed Scaled Composites, along with BAE Systems, was among the most favored teams to win the competition to replace hundreds of T-38 Talon trainers for the USAF under the T-X program. Considering that the Air Force has flown Northrop's T-38 for the better part of a century, and factoring in Scaled Composites' pedigree for making game-changing airframes, even speaking of the possibility that Northrop Grumman wouldn't end up competing for the prize seemed like blasphemy. Sadly, that possibility turned into reality. But now, months after its cancellation, we are seeing the first high resolution pictures of Northrop Grumman's T-X sleek prototype taken during testing.

The Northrop Grumman and their teammates seemed to be progressing well with their T-X entrant, which received the in-house name Model 400. The sleek jet was first spotted at Mojave Air And Space Port, where Scaled Composites calls home, in late August of 2016. The company made no comment on the prototype even as low quality photos of it taxiing hit the web. Not too long after it took to the skies, but still the only indication from Northrop Grumman that it existed was them stating that the Model 400 prototype would be officially unveiled in early 2017. 

Here's what we originally said about the Model 400 when it first emerged;

"Originally, Northrop Grumman intended to run with an updated version of BAE System’s Hawk T2 trainer, but that idea was axed when it was clear that the 40-plus-year-old design would not meet the USAF’s lofty performance requirements. Following this change in strategy, Northrop Grumman’s design process became especially secretive—although it was widely known that Scaled Composites, a company that dramatically changed aviation under legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan and was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2007, would be heavily involved.

Scaled Composites effectively led the industry into the world of large composite aircraft structures and rapid prototyping, although this technology has become widespread throughout the aerospace industry in the last few decades. Still, the name Scaled Composites carries a lot of cache, and they usually are at least one step ahead of the competition when it comes to aerospace technology.

This unique Scaled Composites-Northrop Grumman heritage was clearly evident when the company’s T-X broke cover on Friday. Dubbed the Model 400, the aircraft looks like a modernized, composite hybrid of the T-38 Talon and the F-20 Tigershark. It packs a single F404-GE-102D engine,  a derivative of the same engine used in the F/A-18A/D, the JAS-39A/D (Volvo RM12), the F-117A, and India’s Tejas light fighter—as well as Lockheed's T-X competitor, the T-50A. 

The engine/airframe appears to lack an expanding nozzle usually indicative of an afterburning capability, so either Northrop-Grumman’s design is made to perform on dry thrust alone, or it will add afterburning capabilities on a later prototype. That said, it is also possible that a simpler, internal nozzle could be built into the design, which could enhance aerodynamic performance, save weight, and lower costs. 

It is likely that BAE Systems and its partners (L-3, primarily) will provide much of the aircraft’s avionics systems integration, including its high-end synthetic tactical training suite. Decades of developing this system for the Hawk may pay off huge for the T-X competition, as the system is proven and can save money in more abstract ways than flight hours and sustainability costs alone.

Ultimately, this design can potentially be pitched as an entirely new aircraft while still leveraging Northrop’s hugely successful T-38 Talon lineage—a strategy that has proven itself in the past. Take the Super Hornet; it is effectively an all-new design, but was easily pushed through the Pentagon, the White House, and Congress because it could be pitched as a cost-effective “evolution” of an existing (and proven) aircraft. A “composite T-38” could accomplish this as well. If the jet’s price tag is also appealing, it could be very tough for its competitors to beat."

Scaled Composites.

The Model 400's T-38 lineage is crystal clear in this image. 

Just at first glance, it looked like Northrop Grumman had a very sound strategy with the new aircraft being as similar to the original T-38 configuration as possible while also likely keeping a very sharp eye on cost. But then, suddenly, just around the time that the company was supposed to officially unveil their exciting new T-X contender, one that had been flying for some time at that, the company canned its participation in the T-X program entirely. The move was startling to say the least, with Northrop Grumman not only giving up the possible opportunity to build at least 350 new tactical jets—an opportunity that is becoming increasingly rare—but also giving up on 50 plus years of pilot training heritage. 

As we wrote on February 1st, 2017:

"Around the same time the company hinted that their prototype would be officially unveiled, Northrop Grumman’s leadership has decided to throw in the towel. A statement by Northrop Grumman reads:

“Northrop Grumman and its principal teammate BAE Systems have carefully examined the U.S. Air Force’s T-X Trainer requirements and acquisition strategy as stated in the final request for proposals issued on Dec. 30, 2016. The companies have decided not to submit a proposal for the T-X Trainer program, as it would not be in the best interest of the companies and their shareholders.” 

NG definately has other pending priorities—namely, the USAF’s massive Long-Range Strike Bomber contract now known as the B-21 Raider stealth bomber. The B-21 represents potential revenue approaching $100 billion, and while the T-X contract isn’t small beans by any means—especially in the world of dwindling tactical aircraft production opportunities—spreading the company’s limited resources too thin is a serious issue at such a critical time. Not just that, but other initiatives, like the E-8 JSTARS replacement program and MQ-25 Stingray/CBARS unmanned carrier aircraft system, will also take focus and expertise to win, and the company looks to do just that now that these competitions are getting underway. 

There is also the real possibility that the company’s Model 400 simply was not seen as competitive enough, either on cost or performance grounds, to win the contract now that the official requirements have been put forward by the USAF. In fact, we may never know for sure what the company’s reasoning for ditching the type may have been."

Aviation Week's James Drew has speculated that maybe the decision was made in order to save company cash in its $7.8B effort to buy Orbital ATK, an initiative that was just recently announced. The thing is such a decision could have been made totally independent of the Model 400's merits. In other words, this type of a strategic business move could have left an incredibly promising contender out of the T-X race by no fault of its own. And by all indications, the Model 400 could have been a very formidable challenger. 

Scaled Composites

The Model 400 test pilots pose in front of their mount. Notice the rear main landing appear to be borrowed from the T-38. 

The T-X program has struggled to move forward to some degree in recent months, with some defense industry analysts thinking it may be put on the back burner due to budgetary uncertainty. The USAF had said it would award the contract to one of the entrants by year's end, but that could be pushed back considering the Pentagon will likely be operating under a continuing resolution for at least the next few months. If sequestration remains in place beyond that, or if a string of continuing resolutions keep funding the Pentagon, the T-X program could be pushed off indefinitely. 

With all this in mind, maybe Northrop Grumman executives had inclinations on just how tough it would be for the program to move ahead under the fiscal and political chaos that continues to plague Washington and decided to put their bets on another game entirely. As we stated earlier, focusing its talent on the B-21 program, which is really key to the company's survival as a prime aircraft manufacturer, was also likely a factor. Additionally, emphasizing business opportunities in the high-end unmanned space would also suck up funding and personnel, and although we know that winning the Navy's CBARS drone tanker tender will be key for gaining a foothold in the operational naval drone space, we also know the company is very active in unmanned clandestine programs, which could be far larger in scope than just producing aircraft for test and evaluation purposes.

Still, it's sad that we don't at least know more about the Model 400 and the strategy behind it. But one thing is for certain, the other competitors for the T-X bid, like Boeing-Saab and Lockheed Martin, sure must have been pleased to hear of the Model 400's early demise. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com