By Jeff Martin, WAAY – TV
30 March 2017 -- In an announcement Thursday morning, officials with Italian defense company Leonardo announced they would build their competitor in the Air Force's training aircraft replacement program at Moton Field in Tuskegee, if selected by the Air Force. But, since a winner is not expected to be chosen until later this year, the total impact remains to be seen. Thursday was the deadline for entries into the competition.
The site chosen was Moton Field, which was where the U.S. Army Air Forces trained African-American pilots, who later went on to become the famous "Red Tails" and led the way in desegregating the U.S. military. While Tuskegee was the winner of Thursday’s announcement, the Mississippi town of Meridian was the loser. Leonardo was previously partnered with Raytheon on the program, and had originally planned to build the aircraft there.
“Building the T-100 aircraft in Alabama will create American jobs while providing the Air Force with the world’s best trainer,” said Leonardo DRS CEO William J. Lynn, prime contractor for the T-100 team. “Future American military pilots can learn on the world’s most operationally proven, low-cost, low-risk integrated training system developed by a skilled U.S. workforce.”
According to a press release, the project calls for 750 full-time jobs, and more than $200 million in investments over a ten year period, if Leonardo is selected. The Alabama facility would be used for final assembly, integration, research and testing. The Air Force plans to buy 350 of the winning aircraft to replace the venerable, 55 year old T-38C.
However, Leonardo’s T-100 faces stiff competition, like the Lockheed Martin-Korean Aerospace Industries team's T-50A, and clean-sheet designs from a team made up of Sierra Nevada and Turkish Aerospace Industries and another made up of Boeing and Saab. In addition, Stavatti Aerospace indicated they had submitted a bid late on Thursday.
Leonardo’s bid for the competition has faced problems. They were originally partnered with General Dynamics and then Raytheon until early this year, when Leonardo announced their U.S. subsidiary, DRS would take over.
The Boeing-Saab and Lockheed Martin-KAI teams are seen as the front-runners, but Leonardo is confident in their bid, which is a modified version of the company's M-346 training aircraft. The company hopes an off the shelf design will provide a low-cost option for the Air Force, increasing chances of being selected. The aircraft will use an engine built in Arizona by Honeywell.
“Leonardo’s project will have a massive economic impact in Macon County and across the region through the creation of high-paying jobs,” Governor Robert Bentley said. “Moreover, these T-100 training aircraft — built at the site where the legendary Tuskegee Airmen trained during World War II — will prepare a new generation of fighter pilots whose mission is to keep our country safe.”
But, the economic impact mentioned by the Governor may never happen. The T-100 is being designed and offered specifically for the Air Force's T-X program, and if they are not selected, it isn't clear whether or not the aircraft would be offered for sale to foreign customers. So if Leonardo is not selected, the planned investment would likely be cancelled.
Despite that, local leaders in Tuskegee welcome the announcement, with Mayor Tony Haygood saying that “We look forward to supporting this effort that can lead to renewed vitality of Macon County and the City of Tuskegee."
The facility would be operated through a public-private partnership, with Leonardo leasing the land used for the project.
The ground-based training system will be supported by Tampa based CAE USA, which also operates a facility in Dothan to train Army fixed-wing pilots.
Alabama being selected also brings in possible allies for Leonardo’s bid, as Senator Luther Strange (R-AL) sits on the Armed Services Committee and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) sits on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. Both would be powerful supporters of Leonardo’s bid.