FARNBOROUGH, England — The Textron AirLand Scorpion is as close as it has ever been to finding a first customer, following an agreement to team with Thales and QinetiQ to bid on a UK training contract.
There is still a way to go, but a clear path has now emerged toward larger production on the 3-year-old design, which has drawn positive reviews from aerospace insiders despite questions about who is willing to buy it.
The Scorpion was unveiled September 2013, a clean-sheet aircraft design put together internally by Textron AirLand. Billed as an ISR-strike system, the company has claimed flying costs of about $,3000 per hour and a flexible design that is able to integrate off-the-shelf weapons and sensors in a matter of days.
Bill Anderson, president of Textron AirLand, told Defense News that the company remains firmly committed to the development of Scorpion, and he pointed to the fact Thales and QinetiQ reached out to Scorpion and requested the jet for their planned bid on the UK's Air Support to Defence Operational Training (ASDOT) contract as proof that the plane is able to provide high capability at a relatively low cost.
The first step, of course, is actually winning the ASDOT contract, which is no sure thing. Selection is expected in mid to late 2018, with jets needed by 2020. While a tight window, Anderson said he is confident the company can meet that production requirement.
Right now, Textron is focused on getting the production conforming plane — the second Scorpion produced — flying over the summer. That, Anderson said, is a big step for the company, as "potential customers want to fly the production conforming airplane. That was a must-have event, and we're on schedule to fly this summer."
The two existing Scorpion aircraft were produced in Wichita, Kansas. While Anderson would not commit fully to that being the location for full production, he did note that Textron's acquisition of Hawker Beechcraft means there is plenty of land in the Wichita area now owned by the company.
And while discussions with other nations continue, it may be that the best way for Textron to land those all-important initial orders is by focusing on the services niche, rather than trying to land a foreign nation as a direct customer.
Anderson highlighted the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) services market as one where the jet could find customers – including one near and dear to Textron AirLand's heart.
"We believe the Scorpion airplane is a great airplane for the ISR services market. Textron aviation may go forward, should the right opportunity come, and compete for that business," he said.
When Scorpion first launched, part of the business case was that it would fit the needs of the US National Guard. However, while there was strong interest from the Guard initially, financial realities meant those discussions stalled early.
Textron then turned its eyes towards the US Air Force T-X trainer replacement competition, which has a production run of at least 350 jets. The company first considered putting forth the baseline Scorpion model and then weighed a trainer-specific variant of the jet.
However, the draft requirements from the Air Force released in 2015 appear to emphasize capabilities that the Scorpion cannot match, primarily in G-rate, and Anderson said in February that a new design to meet those requirements would be cost prohibitive for the company.
While he wouldn't rule out a Scorpion-based bid for T-X, Anderson acknowledged Tuesday that barring a major change in the final service's requirements, his team would not be competing.
"We have to take a look at what the final requirements are. As the requirements exist today, Scorpion ISR-strike is not a competitor, nor is a derivative of Scorpion a competitor," he said. "They are still asking for an extremely high performance, high G-rate, which will likely involve an airplane that is capable of supersonic flight, although they don't call it that. So it is going to be a very expensive airplane."
However, Anderson said the company continues to brief both the US Air Force and Navy on the plane, and sees some potential should the Air Force decide it needs a replacement for the A-10 close-air support platform.
"I believe [the services] are coming to agree there is great potential to get hours of your high-end fighters that are very expensive, and are life limited, and get hours and utility out of a multimission airplane like Scorpion," he said, adding that if the Air Force issues a request for proposal at some point for a new CAS system, Textron would "obviously" be interested.