Seeking New Markets: Textron AirLand is planning to develop a trainer variant of its Scorpion aircraft to compete for the US Air Force's T-X trainer replacement competition, as well as international markets. (Textron AirLand)
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CHICAGO — Textron AirLand plans to enter a modified version of its Scorpion aircraft into the US Air Force’s T-X trainer replacement competition, a top company official said.
The company is also eyeing the international training market as an area of growth for its jet, which is still working on signing its first customer.
Textron executives have largely danced around the question of whether the Scorpion would enter the T-X competition, hinting it was under consideration but not giving confirmation. The comments from Stephen Burke, regional vice president for military business development at Textron AirLand, were the clearest and most decisive made by an executive about plans to enter the trainer market.
“We will compete for T-X,” Burke told Defense News Aug. 23 at the National Guard Association of the United States annual conference in Chicago.
Scorpion is designed to be an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance plane (ISR) with strike capabilities. Since the plane’s unveiling in September, Textron officials have highlighted the modular nature of the jet, something Burke said would come into play with a trainer variant.
“Because of the modularity of that platform we are able to change certain air performance characteristics relatively easily and be able to compete for the higher air performance requirements of the T-X program using the same basic platform with small modifications,” he said.
A trainer variant would keep the twin-engine, twin-tail design of the basic Scorpion. The major change would involve shortening the wings from 47 feet to something smaller and more aerodynamic, as well as increasing the thrust in the engine.
“When you’re trying to fly an ISR mission you want persistent loiter,” Burke explained. “If you’re looking for a two-hour training syllabus, you can trade some of the air performance against your fuel efficiency so you can get that air performance at the expense of the fuel efficiency you need for ISR.”
The Air Force plans to issue a request for proposals in the third quarter of fiscal 2016 for the T-X program. Before that request comes out, Textron intends to have a model of its trainer variant up and flying to prove that it can meet Air Force requirements.
“The Air Force has made it absolutely clear they’re not interested in development aircraft,” Burke said. “It’s our intention to have that aircraft flying that meets the training objectives” of the program.
The winner of the T-X competition will replace the service’s T-38 trainers with 350 new aircraft, a major contract that has drawn significant competition.
Three existing trainers are being offered for the T-X in the Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, a joint program of BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, L-3 Link Simulation & Training and Rolls-Royce; Lockheed Martin’s offering of the Korean Aerospace Industries T-50; and the T-100, a collaboration between General Dynamics and Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi.
Boeing and Saab have announced plans to create a “clean-sheet” design as well. Although details are scant, the companies claim it will not be based on Saab’s Gripen fighter.
While not one of the top recapitalization programs for the Air Force, T-X remains “existential” to the service going forward, Eric Fanning, service undersecretary, said this year.
“The trainers we’re using now are really old, well past their expected life, and if we do not have those, we cannot train to the next level of platforms,” he told Defense News in May. “To keep the [F-35] joint strike fighter affordable, it is important that we have that trainer.”
Textron remains on the hunt for its first customer, though Burke said several active discussions are underway. Scorpion officials have said they hope to sign several international orders as launch customers.
Michael Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, believes offering a trainer variant could open further sales for the Scorpion.
“If they want to move more products, they need to concentrate overseas,” Blades said. He said the modular nature of the Scorpion could make it easier to sell the aircraft, since the basic plane could be sold without equipment that is restricted by International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
At the same time, Frost & Sullivan’s numbers see the training market staying relatively flat for the foreseeable future. That means a new trainer should look to attack cost in order to break into that market.
Textron claims an average flying-hour cost of $2,700, relatively close to the $2,200 per flying hour for a T-6 prop plane.
“If you can get your flying cost close to where a prop is, you’re doing pretty well,” Blades said. “They’re attacking from the right vantage point.”
Burke said the international market has a history of using a single jet to do both basic training and light attack.
“I would say it is part of a strategic campaign plan that some countries are already employing, that I need a light attack aircraft that can perform trainer functions,” Burke said. “If they can buy a single aircraft which meets their training needs and operational needs in the same aircraft which is affordable, we may change the dynamic of ‘that’s a dedicated light attack plane and this is a dedicated trainer.’
“That, we think, is the market sweet spot, and our international customers are giving us the feedback we have targeted correctly.”
The Scorpion team also plans to take advantage of Textron’s diverse portfolio. A Scorpion bid could be accompanied by simulation from its internal TRU Simulation arm, and the company’s maintenance experience could allow it to provide a fully-integrated solution.
“A lot of our international customers in the ISR strike variant of the aircraft need the ability to do similar type training, so we’re offering turn-key solutions for those who want that, or mix-and-match from a menu of capabilities they may want to do in-house and outsource on others,” Burke said. ■