Australia, Serbia Emerge As First Potential T-7A Red Hawk Jet Trainer Export Customers
Australia is looking to replace older jet trainers, but Serbia could be first to adopt the jet in a combat role.
Boeing's T-7A Red Hawk jet trainer, which it developed together with Swedish aviation firm Saab for the U.S. Air Force, is already generating interest on the international market. The T-7A, which could also have a future as a light combat aircraft, is now officially in the running to replace the Royal Australian Air Force's BAE Hawk jet trainers and could be an option to supplant the Serbian Air Force's G-4 Super Galeb jet trainers and J-22 Orao ground attack planes.
Boeing officially announced that it had submitted the T-7A for Australia AIR 6002 Phase 1 future Lead-In Fighter Training System (LIFTS) competition on July 30, 2020, according to FlightGlobal. This was five days after Nenad Miloradovic, Serbia's Acting Assistant Minister of Defense for Material Resources, said his country was exploring the possibility of buying Red Hawks in a televised interview, which Jane's was first to report on.
"The T-7, which is scalable, interoperable and configurable, is ideally suited to address the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) next-generation frontline fast-jet aircraft training requirements,” Boeing said in a statement to FlightGlobal regarding the Australian LIFTS program.
"No other training system in the world today will better develop the skills required to operate the RAAF’s most advanced frontline aircraft like the F/A-18 Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and the F-35,” Chuck Dabundo, Boeing's Vice President for the T-7 program, added. It's worth noting that the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler are both also Boeing products. The RAAF is also an operator of Boeing's P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and is working with the company's Australia-based division on an advanced loyal wingman-type drone effort, known as the Airpower Teaming System, which you can read about more in this past War Zone piece.
The RAAF is looking to replace its entire fleet of approximately 33 BAE Hawk Mk 127 Lead-in Fighter (LIF) jet trainers, which it first ordered in 1997. Last year, the U.K.-based manufacturer completed an upgrade program for all of these jets, which included a improved electronic warfare system, as well as Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning (EGPWS) and Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) suites. Though these aircraft don't have a radar of their own, they also have updated radar emulation capabilities when combined with podded systems, such as the Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation (ACMI) pod. The aircraft have new glass cockpits with digital multi-function displays, as well.
The upgraded Mk 127s have a configuration very similar to the Hawk T2s, originally known as Mk 128s, that the U.K. Royal Air Force flies. It's interesting to note that Northrop Grumman had initially planned to submit the T2 to the U.S. Air Force's T-X competition, but ultimately went with a clean sheet design after deciding that the modernized Hawk could not meet that program's requirements. The Boeing-Saab T-7A was the winner of the T-X competition in 2018.
Australia hopes to have picked a winner for its LIFTS competition in the next few years and have all of the new jet trainers delivered by 2033. Previous estimates have said that the entire procurement effort, which could include various ancillary items and services, could cost between $4 and $5 billion Australian dollars, or between around $2.85 billion and $3.56 billion at the present rate of conversion. The U.S. Air Force is only slated to receive its first production T-7As in 2023.
Serbia is also in the process of exploring replacement options for its G-4 Super Galebs and J-22 Oraos, both of which were developed by SOKO in the former Yugoslavia during the Cold War. SOKO designed the G-4 on its own, but crafted the J-22 together with Romania's Avioane Craiova. The J-22 first entered Yugoslav service in 1978, with the G-4 arriving five years later. The Serbia Air Force inherited examples of both of these aircraft, among many other types, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, which began in 1991.
That Serbia is looking at the T-7A as one possible replacement for its G-4s makes good sense. The single-engine G-4 is roughly comparable to many other jet trainers of its era, including early generations of the BAE Hawk. The Red Hawk would offer a substantial increase in overall capability and performance over the Super Galebs in lead-in and advanced jet trainer roles.
However, if the Serbian Air Force were to adopt the T-7A, or a variant or derivative thereof, as a replacement for the J-22, it would make the country the first to operate the aircraft in a dedicated combat role. The J-22 is a ground-attack aircraft that can also carry out tactical reconnaissance missions when carrying a pod equipped with visual and infrared cameras. The jet has an internally-mounted 23mm GSh-23 twin-barrel automatic cannon and can carry various weapons on any of five external hardpoints, two under each wing and one under the fuselage centerline.
Serbia didn't come to the idea of using a version of the T-7A in this role, either. There has already been talk for years, as The War Zone has explored in the past, about how the Red Hawk offers the growth potential to serve as a light fighter jet with a robust ground-attack capability. Boeing itself highlighted this again just this month, suggesting that the aircraft could be a good and relatively low-cost choice for countries looking to replace aging light jet combat aircraft, such as Northrop F-5 Tiger IIs and Franco-German Alpha Jets. Both of those Cold War-era aircraft remain in widespread use around the world.
The G-4s also have a limited secondary air-to-ground capability. It is possible that Serbia could acquire a single trainer-attack-type variant to replace both those jets and the J-22s.
"These are the initial steps in developing new capabilities as no such capital acquisition is realized overnight," Miloradovic said in his interview, according to Jane's. "The [T-7A] aircraft itself is supersonic and features modern avionics, and as such would be able to entirely replace our ground attack aviation and being multirole would also be able to support our [MiG-29 Fulcrum] interceptors."
Beyond the Red Hawk's capabilities and performance, any foreign customer would be able to benefit from the significant investments that the U.S. government has already made in the design, as well as the supply chains to support it, all of which will help reduce the jet's unit cost and what it takes to operate and maintain it. The U.S. Air Force has already said it will buy at least 351 examples and possibly up to 475 of the T-7As, which are set to be a major component of its future pilot training programs, if nothing else, for years to come.
All told, the T-7A Red Hawk's future on the export market is already looking very bright.
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