Military aircraft and other defence equipment are becoming increasingly complex and expensive, but at the same time budgets are being constrained. How can planners reconcile these two opposing trends? A joint venture between the US conglomerate Textron and AirLand Enterprises thinks it may have the answer: a budget surveillance and strike fighter jet.
Textron AirLand calls it the Scorpion, a two-seat, twin-engined jet that costs less than $20m per unit and around $3,000 for every hour it flies. Compare those figures to other aircraft, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars to buy and fly, and the Scorpion suddenly becomes very attractive to those in charge of buying equipment.
This summer, the aircraft covered 4,700 nautical miles from Wichita, Kansas, to RAF Fairford to make its first international appearance in the UK. The flight was successful, unlike the billion-dollar F-35 which was barred from making its own international debut because of an engine fire earlier in July.
The irony of the little Scorpion successfully making it to the UK and the Joint Strike Fighter’s embarrassing no-show was not lost on most attendees. “Two US fighter jets were due to make their international debuts this week…At the moment, only one of them is here,” reported the BBC.
Squeezing in between the Gripen and Super Tucano
Work on the jet began in January 2012 after representatives from AirLand pitched the idea to Textron executives. AirLand Enterprises is made up of retired military officers and aerospace engineers led by former secretary of the US Air Force Whit Peters. Most of the companies they initially approached rejected the idea of a budget jet fighter, but not Textron.
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Textron managed to keep the Scorpion’s development secret until a finished prototype was unveiled in September 2013. It successfully conducted its first flight from McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita on 12 December 2013. The programme went from drawing board to first flight in less than 24 months, a stark contrast to many military projects which stay in the design phase for years.
Sporting a straight-wing and twin-tail configuration, the Scorpion is not the most aesthetically pleasing aircraft around but what it lacks in style it makes up for in substance.
The Scorpion can be fitted with advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems and precision guided munitions for strike missions. Textron AirLand hopes the aircraft will squeeze into a gap between high-performance jets such as the Saab Gripen, which can cost around $50m, and cheaper turboprops such as the Embraer Super Tucano.
As a way of keeping costs low, the aircraft uses existing technology – so called ‘off-the-shelf’ components – rather than attempting to develop unique parts. Cessna – a Textron subsidiary – has provided a large percentage of parts from its Citation business jets and other companies, including Cobham, Martin-Baker Aircraft and Honeywell, have supplied electronics, ejection seats and engines.
Textron AirLand sees the Scorpion as the perfect platform for “low-end missions” like counter-insurgency, irregular warfare support, counter-narcotics and disaster response. In recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military used high-performance jets like the F-16 to carry out these missions, costing the air force $18,000 in hourly fuel bills. The Scorpion is being pushed as an affordable alternative.
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Analysts estimate the Scorpion has cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and build, all paid for by Textron AirLand. It’s a high-risk move and a rare occurrence in an industry which predominantly relies on funding and strict specifications from governments. It’s a similar strategy that other aerospace companies like Boeing have adopted in recent years.
“Was it very risky? Yes. Was it a smart risk? Yes,” Textron AirLand’s president Bill Anderson told the BBC. “But the marketplace is very interested. We produce commercial products all the time. That was the approach here.”
Around 2,000 Scorpions could be sold worldwide, especially in Africa, South American and the Middle East, according to Textron officials. At $20m a piece, that would mean a sizeable return on the company’s initial investment and prove that the gamble paid off. But with orders still lacking, 2,000 units looks optimistic.
So what would make the Scorpion a soaraway success and not a financial flop? Experts say it will require a significant order from the biggest defence customer in the world: the Pentagon. But an order from the US Air Force is unlikely, wrote Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at Teal Group. “It’s a solution to a problem that does not exist. Close-air support is not a pressing requirement for the service.”
One of the Scorpion’s proposed roles as an “affordable” ISR platform is already being carried out by the USAF’s increasing fleet of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). As well as being affordable, these UAS also lessen the risk to pilots. It begs the question: why would the military choose a manned platform and increase the risk for its pilots when it can rely on UAS?
Textron AirLand thinks the US National Guard could be a potential customer. In August the Scorpion participated in a major National Guard exercise called Vigilant Guard 2014. Despite still being in its prototype phase, the Scorpion provided a live video feed to National Guard soldiers during the exercise as they dealt with a chemical spill scenario.
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So what is the Scorpion good for?
With the US Air Force’s budget still focused on big ticket projects like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Future Bomber, there may be only one role for the Scorpion with the US military. “The Air Force does have one firm requirement for an aircraft in this class: fulfilling the T-X programme to replace the T-38,” wrote Aboulafia.
The T-X programme aims to replace the ageing Northrop T-38 trainer jets in service with the USAF since the 1960s. But to be taken seriously as a T-X contender the subsonic Scorpion would have to be fitted with a powerful new engine and a redesigned wing with some sweep. Although requirements for the T-X programme have yet to be released, it’s likely the US Air Force will want a supersonic trainer just like the T-38.
Textron AirLand says the Scorpion would make a “fantastic” trainer and is very interested in taking part, but a decision will be based on what the final requirements are for the T-X programme. Experts warn that the Scorpion would have to be completely redesigned for the role, which would add to the cost and ultimately affect the company’s claim that the aircraft is affordable.
If the Scorpion does eventually receive orders then it could “embolden” other defence companies to develop military systems without government investment. But if the Scorpion flops, like some have predicted, companies and their investors will think again before risking their own money in defence projects.
The fate of the little Scorpion could tell us a lot about the future direction of the defence industry.