Maker of bizjets and helos hopes to carve out a niche with light attack, reconnaissance jet
It takes a gutsy move for a company to pitch a brand new, clean-sheet aircraft to the for a set of requirements it has not even said it wants, and to present this idea while defense spending in the U.S. faces massive cuts.
But, that is exactly what a newly formed joint venture betweenand a young company—AirLand Enterprises, formed in 2011—is doing. Textron is best known for its business jets and turboprops, as well as 's long experience with rotorcraft. Its partner, AirLand, however, was formed by a small group of investors, including retired defense officials, to explore a new concept for light attack.
It could actually be the scarce funding environment that validates the strategy behind the joint venture's new aircraft—the two-seat, twin-engine Scorpion. The team is unveiling its self-funded project Sept. 16 at the annual Air Force Association Air & Space Conference outside Washington, and officials gave Aviation Week an exclusive sneak peak.
The Scorpion demonstrator is intended to whet the U.S. Air Force's appetite with the promise of a low procurement and operating cost. The pitch is for this aircraft, which is optimized for 5-hr. endurance with onboard intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collectors and weapons, to handle the Air Force's low-end missions such as U.S.-based interdiction, quick-reaction natural disaster support and air sovereignty patrols. The goal is to field an aircraft capable of operating for less than $3,000 per flying hour; the company declined to cite a target unit cost. By contrast, the Pentagon in June cited the cost per flying hour of the, which currently performs many of these missions, as $24,899.
In Afghanistan and Iraq,, F-16s and A-10s have been used for patrols and close air support in completely uncontested airspace. This was overkill, according to some military officials. Built for high-speed, high-G maneuvers, these aircraft made little use of their strengths in these conflicts, but were needed to drop ordnance and provide armed overwatch for ground troops.
“The military is very focused right now on that very high-end” capability, says Textron CEO Scott Donnelly, noting the attention on developing and buying theas a replacement for most Air Force combat aircraft. “There is a market space right now. . . . One of the challenges we have today in the Defense Department is we see budgets coming down [and] that is exactly why this is the right time to do this.”
Assuming Scorpion makes good on its operating-cost target, the system could have saved the Pentagon $1 billion a year in fuel alone, says F. Whitten Peters, Air Force secretary from 1999-2001. Peters, and other retired senior military officials, formed the AirLand Enterprises company and birthed the Scorpion concept several years ago. The project gained steam once they found a partner in Textron to build the aircraft starting in January 2012.
This is an unexpected venture for Textron, which is not known for purpose-built, fixed-wing aircraft designed for combat. The company's Bell Helicopter, maker of the H-1 andfamilies, and Textron Systems, which designs armored patrol vehicles and unmanned aircraft, have strong ties with the Pentagon. But, Textron is not at the top of the 's list of go-to contractors for aircraft. AirLand's top brass, however, have briefed senior Air Force officials about the project and are likely to be actively involved in the sales pitch.
When Peters was secretary of the Air Force, the service planned to recapitalize its combat fleet with what it called a “high-low” mix of twin-engineand single-engine F-35s. Technical problems and delays in both programs have dramatically increased the prices of these aircraft, both manufactured by . As a result, the Air Force only received 187 F-22s and will struggle to buy the 1,763 included in the current program. Also, the aircraft are designed to be low-observable penetrators, an advantage that comes with a high operating cost.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, says he hopes to stabilize the F-35A's cost at $80-90 million at peak production; aircraft currently being built are estimated at $124 million, including engines and retrofits needed that are related to ongoing testing.
The Scorpion is designed to offer a new low end to USAF's high-low mix for overwatch missions—the ones air forces do most of the time, Peters says. And, he notes, Scorpions could perform that role far more economically.
The Air Force, however, has not suggested a need for such an aircraft. A purchase would likely be preceded by a lengthy requirements process, followed by a competition. Textron could be hoping for the kind of support experienced by, which managed to sell hundreds of Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft to the service without a requirement, in large part due to unwavering congressional support for the utility of the aircraft.
Though designed as a tandem-seat aircraft, Scorpion can be flown by a single pilot. Textron is building it to include a highly simplified and reconfigurable bay that is capable of carrying 3,000 lb. of weapons or intelligence-collecting equipment; the aircraft also has six hard points total. The twin Honewell TF731 engines were selected to provide ample power and cooling for a variety of ISR payloads, Donnelly says. Though used for the demonstrator, these engines could be swapped out.
Textron AirLand selected Cobham for the cockpit, which will feature modern flat-panel displays. Scorpion is not fly-by-wire, a decision made to keep cost down and simplify the design. However, Donnelly acknowledges that an unmanned version could be of interest in the future; so this capability could eventually be incorporated to take the pilot out of the cockpit.
AirLand gathered a group of composites experts with experience making Very Light Jets and the F-22 to help design the aircraft, which was built at Textron's Wichita facility. Eyeing a robust international market for the aircraft, Donnelly says that the use of composites will provide a substantial service life for the cost, a factor that could appeal to nations in the Pacific-Rim region or the Middle East, where environments are harsh.
Although the team does not plan to wait for the Air Force to buy the Scorpion before marketing it abroad, Donnelly acknowledges that the Pentagon's stamp of approval in the form of a purchase would substantially boost the aircraft's marketability for foreign sales.
Textron AirLand is walking a fine line with its Scorpion pitch. The targeted mission set—light, armed and fast ISR—is in a niche nestled among armed twin-turboprops (such as the MC-12 Project Liberty), the forthcoming, single-engine T-38 replacement program and the high-end, stealthy fighters.
Allies are also buying turboprop-driven armed-attack aircraft, such as the Pentagon's purchase ofA-29 Super Tucanos for Afghanistan. And foreign air forces tend to opt for multipurpose trainers that can also perform light-attack missions.
Comparatively, Scorpion offers speed over the twin-turboprops and simplicity versus the trainers, which are structurally optimized to withstand high G forces in order to prepare pilots for the F-22 or F-35. And, although some parties may want to recast Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft for air and border patrols in the future, these UAVs remain blocked from operating in most of the domestic airspace.
Scorpion is in the final stages of assembly, and first flight is scheduled to occur by year-end.