By Jim Little, Reporter Opelika-Auburn News, OANow.com
30 March 2017 -- Macon County may become a center of aviation training again.
Tuskegee Mayor Tony Haygood announced Thursday that Leonardo DRS will build its T-100 trainer jet in Tuskegee if it wins the bid for the $16 billion contract, known as the T-X program, from the U.S. Air Force.
"It's an opportunity to demonstrate what the Tuskegee Airmen laid the foundation for so many years ago," Haygood said.
The contract could mean a $250 million investment for Macon County and more than 750 jobs. If the contract is awarded, Leonardo DRS would begin production in two to four years, and production would last 20 years.
The new jet will replace the Air Force’s current trainer jet, the T-38, which was designed in the 1950s. The Air Force will award the contract by the end of 2017.
Gov. Robert Bentley, Auburn mayor Bill Ham and other officials attended the announcement.
"There has been a tremendous amount of work done over this project," Bentley said. "This project will be something that everyone can be proud of. I have faith that the United States Air Force will choose the correct plane, and its going to be that plane right there."
Joe Turnham, a strategic consultant for the Macon County Economic Development Authority, said the project to bring Leonardo to Tuskegee was a result of Macon County partnering with the city of Auburn to put together a request for information.
"This isn't just something you can keep in a bottle," Turnham said. "The biggest impact will be here but it will ripple throughout the region."
The deal to bring Leonardo DRS to Tuskegee includes more than $100 million in economic incentives from the state and local governments over a 30-year period, Turnham said.
Leonardo DRS, formerly known as DRS Technologies, is owned by the Italian defense contractor Leonardo.
"Building a factory on these grounds will be the fulfillment of a shared goal and the start of a long and productive partnership," said Bill Lynn, CEO of Leonardo DRS.
Moton Field was where the Tuskegee Airmen learned to fly and Lynn said it was appropriate that it should become the location where the next generation of trainer jets are built.
"As they trained and flew into battle from another field in Ramitelli, Italy, the Tuskegee Airmen came to know the warmth of the Italian people," Lynn said. "I'm proud that we will bring Italian technology back here to these historic grounds. Technology that will create American jobs."
For the T-100 project, Leonardo DRS will partner with Honeywell which will build the T-100's two engines at a plant in Arizona. Another partner, CAE USA, based in Tampa, Fla, will develop the ground-based training system as part of the program.
CAE provides a training program to U.S. Army fixed-wing pilots at a $70 million center at the Dothan Regional Airport.
The Italian defense firm was previously partnered with Raytheon to build the T-100 at a new plant in Meridian, Miss. The two firms announced in January they would no longer work on pursuing the T-X contract together, and Leonardo would go alone through its U.S.-based company Leonardo DRS.
Raytheon had hosted Mississippi lawmakers for a ground breaking in December at the Meridian location featuring southern food and T-100 mason jars, according to a report from DefenseNews.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said the split was “beyond the state’s control,” according to The Clarion Ledger.
Lynn said Leonardo went through an extensive site-selection process after Raytheon left. "We looked at a number of locations, and frankly, Tuskegee and Alabama put together the best package to bring us here," Lynn said. "It has a very strong workforce given the two universities, Tuskegee and Auburn, are very close. We think that this gave us the best opportunity to win that competition."
The T-100 jet is based on Leonardo’s M-346 advanced jet trainer which is flown by the Italian, Israeli, Polish and United Arab Emirates air forces. "We offer the world's most operationally proven, the most cost effective and lowest risk integrated training system in the world today," Lynn said. "We have consistently beaten the competition worldwide."
Lynn said Israel pilots are using the M-346 to train for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter which is the purpose of the T-X program in the U.S. "Of course, one of the major reasons we're going to win this program is the facility that you're helping build here that will give it a made in America product," Lynn said. "This is going to be an American trainer built by Americans. Built right here in Alabama."
The T-100 will face at least two competitors for the contract: the T-50 from Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries which, as Leonardo noted on its website, it has beaten four out of five times in international trainer contract competitions; and a brand new design from Boeing and Saab called the T-X.
The Air Force will purchase 350 new planes from the winner of the contract.
"We just have to win the competition now," Turnham said. "We have to help this company compete against the giants of industry like Boeing and Lockheed in order to win. I think we can."