‘Blue Magpie’ program to be inked today

DO-IT-YOURSELF::The Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology is to sign a NT$68.6 billion contract to build 66 XT-5 trainers to replace the air force’s aging fleet

By Chen Wei-han  /  Staff reporter

Tue, Feb 07, 2017 - Page 1

A program to build supersonic trainer aircraft is to be officially launched today, with the first prototype expected in two years, and flight tests a year later.

Air Force Commander General Shen Yi-ming (沈一鳴) and Chung-shan Institute of Science and Technology president Chang Guan-chung (張冠群) are to sign a memorandum to award the institute an NT$68.6 billion (US$2.22 billion) contract to build 66 planes.

A cornerstone of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) policy to develop a local defense industry, the program is to produce 66 XT-5 “Blue Magpie” trainers designed by Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC) to replace the air force’s aging AT3 trainers and F5 fighters, which remain in service to support training exercises.

AIDC, the main subcontractor, has gathered more than 300 aviation professionals to design and produce the new trainer, which is reportedly based on the design of Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) jets assembled by AIDC.

The IDF was produced with the technical assistance of several US companies, including General Dynamics Corp, which helped with the frame; Hughes Corp, which designed the engine; and Westinghouse Co, which produced the avionics system.

AIDC is to design models to undergo wind tunnel testing in the US and other tests in Taiwan, with the first Blue Magpie prototype to be built by 2019 and the first trial flight set for 2020.

The first Blue Magpie is also scheduled to be commissioned that year, with the fleet of 66 XT-5s projected to be completed in 2028.

The air force first submitted a budget in 2008 to procure new trainer jets to replace the AT3s, which have a recommended service life of 20 years and were nearing the end of that time frame.

The Alenia Aermacchi M-346 trainers made by Italy’s Leonardo-Finmeccanica and T50 trainers developed by a South Korean company as well as the US’ Lockheed Martin were the primary objectives.

Following test trials of the M-346, the air force submitted a NT$69.1 billion budget to purchase 66 of the planes and a memorandum was signed between AIDC and Leonardo-Finmeccanica to manufacture four to six M-346s in Italy, with the rest to be built in Taiwan.

However, the procurement project was shelved following the election of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who had pledged to make the defense industry one of Taiwan’s key economic drivers.

Leonardo-Finmeccanica did offer a substantially reduced price — cutting its bill from NT$69.1 billion to NT$50.4 billion — but the government decided to maintain its pledge to build a locally developed plane.

Additional reporting by staff writer