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Northrop surprises with new design for U.S. Air Force trainer

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Northrop Grumman Corp said on Friday it is designing and already building a new aircraft for the upcoming U.S. Air Force T-X competition to build 350 new training planes, an $11 billion program that analysts say could double in value in coming years.

Northrop, which built the B-2 stealth bomber and makes the center fuselage of the F-35 fighter jet, said it planned to fly a prototype of the new trainer for the first time this year.

The company is also vying with a team of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp to build a new long-range bomber for the Air Force.

Northrop teamed up with Britain's BAE Systems Plc in 2011 with the idea of offering BAE's Hawk trainer, already in use in Britain, as a replacement for the aging T-38 trainer. The new system will be used to train pilots for the next 50 years.

About two years ago, as the Air Force began to refine its requirements for the new plane, the companies decided it made more sense to start from scratch with a new design. Other companies on the team include L-3 Communications Holdings and German robotics giant Kuka AG.

Another key player is Scaled Composites, a Northrop unit that builds experimental aircraft like the X-47B, a drone that Northrop successfully tested on an aircraft carrier. General Electric built the engine for the prototype.

The competition will be fierce: Boeing, Lockheed, Textron Inc, and a joint venture of General Dynamics and Italy's Finmeccanica Spa, all plan to submit bids when the tender kicks off in 2017.

Marc Lindsley, director and head of Northrop's T-X "capture team," declined to give any details about the new airplane or its attributes. He said all the companies on the team were investing heavily in the project, which will include ground-based training equipment, advanced simulators and an open architecture design to facilitate continual upgrades.

Lindsley said the companies first told the Air Force about the change in their plans several months ago.

He said a "clean sheet" design would allow the team to take advantage of new technologies and advanced manufacturing techniques, such as 3-D printing, which would help keep down the cost of the new planes.

"We want to give the Air Force what they want," he said. "We're designing in affordability from the start." (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Eric Beech)