Artist's rendering of the under-development Boeing-Saab T-7A trainer jet.

Artist's rendering of the under-development Boeing-Saab T-7A trainer jet. Boeing

Tardy Training Jet Reveals Limits of Digital Design, Air Force Says

New GAO report says decade-late T-7A program will get later yet.

The U.S. Air Force’s decade-late training jet is so wracked with problems—notably in the emergency escape system—that even the service’s updated schedule is unrealistic, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

“The Air Force has yet to resolve significant issues with the escape system, flight software, simulator, and aircraft sustainment,” the report said, while a new schedule issued in January “is also optimistic, relying on favorable outcomes not supported by past performance.” 

Long a poster child for digital design, which the Air Force hopes will save time and money, the Boeing-Saab T-7A Red Hawk has instead revealed its limits. On Monday, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall conceded that the promise of digital design was “over-hyped.”

Digital engineering is “very efficient” compared to moving piles of documents around, Kendall said, but it will never replace testing.

“It's not perfect 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,” Kendall told reporters on Monday.

Lawmakers have urged the Air Force to move faster to replace its half-century-old T-38 trainers, which have been involved in several accidents in recent years. 

Earlier this year, the service pushed back a production decision on the T-7A to February 2025 and moved initial operating capability to January 2027. But GAO said this new schedule is “likely optimistic since the schedule for several areas depends on favorable assumptions,” according to the report, which was released Friday. 

While Boeing and the Air Force have both cited progress on the ejection seat, GAO said Boeing will need to “execute several more design iterations and tests to resolve the problems.”

The watchdog agency said the Air Force is likely two years away from demonstrating a safe escape system. The Air Force declined to say when exactly the ejection seat will be ready, but said it will be before the 2025 production decision, according to a spokesperson. 

Boeing, which has built five test aircraft and two flying prototypes for the T-7, has said more rigorous flight testing will begin this summer after it receives “military flight release,” which essentially clears the aircraft for flight.

One reason the GAO is dubious about the Air Force’s professed two-year schedule is the slow pace of previous tests. After a sled test in late 2021, more than 15 months passed before the following test was successfully executed last February, the report said. The Air Force told GAO that seven more tests are needed before the plane can be declared safe.

“The Air Force tested some design changes for the [trainer] escape system in its February 2023 test, but program officials said the system, in order to meet airworthiness criteria, needs at least seven additional tests to achieve confidence in the system. These seven tests include the three remaining tests funded under the study and four more that the contractor is planning to conduct,” the report said. 

Boeing has reported more than $1 billion in losses on the program. The company originally underbid the T-7 competition, and delays and new charges have added additional pressures. 

“Air Force program officials said that they expect what they call a tenuous relationship with the contractor to remain a key element of managing the program, especially as the contractor continues to lose money,” GAO said. 

A Boeing spokesperson said that the company and the Air Force are “partnered on a path forward” to work on the trainer’s escape system. 

“The team completed a successful sled shot on Feb. 1, 2023 to test the system and provide confidence. Additionally, we continue to evaluate findings and discovery during testing activities which is standard practice when developing a new aircraft,” the spokesperson said in a statement.