T-7A hits key milestone, shows promise and limitations of digital engineering

Source of the illustration: Boeing


The U.S. Air Force successfully flew its planned next generation fighter trainer for the first time on 28 June, marking the beginning of the engineering and manufacturing phase of development for the T-7A Red Hawk—also known as the Advanced Pilot Trainer. The program was begun in 2011 and is almost 10 years behind its initial schedule.

The Boeing T-7A EMD aircraft taking off in St. Louis, Missouri on 28 June. The T-7A is the US Air Force’s next generation fighter trainer. The test flight was an important milestone for a high-profile program that has recently come under criticism for delays and challenges with key technologies. Source: Boeing

The Red Hawk is being designed to replace the T-38 trainer, which is more than 60 years old and has been a notable program for the Air Force as it was envisioned as a demonstration of the efficiencies that can be gained in design, testing, and manufacturing through the incorporation of digital engineering. Indeed, the acquisition process was the first one designated as “e-Series” by the Air Force, which indicates the aircraft was designed using digital engineering.

According to the Air Force Acquisition 2019-2020 Biennial Report “Building the Digital Force”, “by embracing model-based engineering and 3D design tools assembly hours have reduced by 80% and software development time was cut in half. The aircraft moved from the computer screen to first flight in just 36 months”—a reference to two “production representative jets (PRJ) produced by Boeing that have served as a testbed for the technologies now incorporated into the EMD aircraft.

However, the road from the PRJ production to the June flight of the EMD aircraft has been a long and winding one that has also revealed some of the current limitations in the reliance on digitally based testing of a completely new system.

In May, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the T-7A program expressing concerns that the Air Force timeline for development is unrealistic. According to the report, “the Air Force has yet to resolve significant issues with the escape system, flight software, simulator, and aircraft sustainment.” In fact, the issue with the emergency escape system has kept the plane from flying as the new system has not been certified. The Air Force had to grant a waiver for the 28 June flight. The GAO also found that Boeing’s proposed development schedule is “optimistic, relying on favorable outcomes not supported by past performance.”

The emergence exit system has come under particular scrutiny and has yet to be fully certified as safe by the US Air Force. It was one of the key technology areas cited in the GAO report on the program. Source: GAO

The milestone test of the EMD aircraft (one of five built by Boeing) is an important step forward for the program, however it’s trajectory serves as a useful reminder of the opportunities, challenges, growing pains, and overlooked limitations associated with adoption of current iterations of many of the emerging technologies—in this case digital engineering—militaries seek to incorporate more prominently into a wide range of operations, including acquisition, design, testing, and manufacturing.

While there is certainly significant value in the use of digital engineering in the design of complex systems such as the T-7A creating clear efficiencies over analog and paper systems, the T-7A’s recent challenges have also revealed some of the existing—but not necessarily enduring—limitations related to testing exceptionally complex systems solely or even primarily in the digital world.

Soon after the GAO report release, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall commented on these limitations, observing that digital engineering is “not perfect”—at least not yet—“and the T-7 gives you an example of that. It doesn’t help you when you’re doing a design that’s different than anything you’ve ever done before. Having digital doesn’t give you better knowledge about how it’s going to work. You end up having to do testing just as we always had.”

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