Global Debut: The Scorpion is billed primarily as an ISR platform, but company officials expect to find a wide market for the plane. (Textron AirLand)
WASHINGTON — Roughly 10 months ago, Textron AirLand unveiled its Scorpion to US audiences. Now, it is showing it off to the international market.
The jet will be displayed at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) and the Farnborough International Airshow, flying from the company’s Wichita, Kansas, facility. While it won’t fly during the shows, company officials plan to put the plane on static display — and hope to generate interest from international customers.
The Scorpion test model has flown about 80 hours over the past six months, but Farnborough represents the first public appearance of the plane.
“We know a lot of people coming to RIAT and Farnborough are coming, in part, to look at the plane because this is the first time it will be convenient for a number of foreign nation air forces to really come and look at it,” said Whit Peters, a former US Air Force secretary who is working as an adviser for Textron on the Scorpion.
That’s important, because the first customer is almost guaranteed to come from overseas.
The Scorpion is equipped with twin turbofan engines and a tandem cockpit, although the jet is designed to be flown by a single pilot. There are six hard points that could hold a variety of equipment, as well as a large internal compartment with 82 cubic feet of modular space.
That space gives the Scorpion great flexibility, particularly with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) packages, which are desired by countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America. The projected price point — Textron is holding fast to its assertion the cost will be under $20 million a copy — also makes it attractive to smaller international markets.
“There are a lot of air forces that need something that can do ISR, potentially strike, but primarily what they need is something they can afford to acquire and operate safely,” Peters said. “I think the market that we see is basically air forces that can’t afford either to purchase or operate things like F-16s because the acquisition cost is very high and the maintenance cost is high.”
A company spokesman said Textron is in “advanced discussions” with a number of international militaries, but declined to provide further details. Asked if there is a target buy in mind for a launch customer, Peters indicated a series of smaller buys may be more likely.
“Obviously, the larger the better, but I think there are a number of people we are talking to where the need is not going to be more than 20 to 25 aircraft,” Peters said. “You get four or five of those together, that would be fine. But we really don’t know what that [launch] number is.”
For Textron, though, the biggest prize is finding a way into the American market. But given budget realities, how could that happen?
The biggest “in” for Textron could come from the US Air Force’s trainer replacement program, known as T-X. The winner of T-X gains the rights to replace the service’s aged T-38 trainers with 350 new aircraft, making it one of the largest aircraft procurement programs in sight. Assuming funding stays on track — Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning has called the program “existential” to the Air Force’s future — the service wants to award a contract in fiscal 2017.
Not surprisingly, there are four competitors officially announced, representing some of the largest players in the defense world. Could Textron join in as well?
A spokesman for the company said, “we haven’t officially decided what to do in that area,” but Peters gave hints as to the company’s thinking.
“There are different views in different places [at the company] as to what exactly a T-X is. Is it a single-role trainer? A multirole trainer?” Peters said. “My sense is at the more senior levels of the Air Force they realize that whatever T-X is, it needs to generally be a T-38 replacement, and the T-38 has a number of different roles. It’s red air [used as an opposing force in training], it’s a companion trainer.
“At some point T-X is likely to morph into that as it gets more real,” Peters added, noting that the company could provide a trainer-specific variant with a single engine and modified wings. “If that happens, I think we have an airplane that’s really fit for that task.”
The global training market is an area Scorpion should naturally be targeting, said Michael Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan.
“If you need trainers, you need more of them than ISR platforms,” said Blades, who, like Peters, expects the T-X to be a multirole platform. “I think that would be the bigger market to look at.”
Asked whether Textron is positioning itself to make a move on T-X, Blades said, “I think they are going after it.”
“If they can meet the requirements and have the low life-cycle costs that will drive competition, I think they will,” he said. “I think they should be going for any kind of training tender that’s out there, and there’s more than just the US.”
Winning T-X would have a two-fold impact on Scorpion. First, it would likely guarantee more sales for a trainer variant from international customers who want to train on the same plane used by the US, especially since T-X will help train pilots for the F-35.
Second, it would give Scorpion a back door into the US inventory, and a potentially lucrative National Guard market.
Paul Weaver, another adviser on Scorpion and a former director of the Air National Guard, highlighted the cost projections and versatility of the plane as ideal for a service that has to perform both military and civil operations.
“The figure that gets people excited is the less-than-$3,000 an hour,” Weaver said, citing the company’s projected flying hour cost. “This airplane pays for itself in a very short period of time, and it’s exactly what the governors need in their states, especially with all the ISR equipment, post-storm, post-floods, pre- and post-fires, and it can do the Title 10 responsibility as well and go to war.”
One source with knowledge of the Guard confirmed that leaders are interested in the plane. However, even if the Guard takes the highly unlikely step of purchasing a plane without it being used in the active force, the source said the Guard has no plans to use its National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account for new procurements.
“I would love it if the US Air Force would take off the sequestered money and buy some of them, but given sequestration and everything else, that’s not something that’s going to happen immediately,” Peters said. ■