PARIS — For a plane without any known buyers, Textron AirLand's light strike/ISR jet Scorpion generated quite a lot of buzz in its debut appearance at the Paris Air Show.
In part, that's because onlookers know they are looking at a one-of-a-kind aircraft, but also because some may suspect they're looking at the next big jet platform.
Big may be overstating it: At 44-feet-3-inches long with a 47-foot-10-inch wingspan, the Scorpion has a smaller silhouette than most of the fighter jets on the tarmac in Le Bourget.
But if orders come in from the Pentagon and foreign governments, the Scorpion, which went from the drawing board to a prototype in 24 months, could be providing ground support and reconnaissance to several militaries in short order.
The prototype has now crossed the Atlantic three times, first to make its debut in England at the Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough International Air Show in 2014. Then it was back to the US, including its first fly-in in Washington, D.C. The Scorpion recently flew back to Europe from South America, where it was tested by pilots in a country interested in buying multiple jets, but Textron AirLand officials declined to say which country.
"The interest in the airplane remains very high," Textron AirLand president Bill Anderson told Defense News.
The six pilots who flew the Scorpion included a high-ranking officer, he said.
"All the comments were exceptionally positive," he said.
In addition to Latin America, there is "significant interest" in the Middle East and on the Pacific Rim, he said. Textron AirLand expects to submit its first formal proposal to a Pacific Rim nation at the end of the month, Anderson said.
Construction on a second conforming aircraft is underway, and the modifications to the trimmable tail will allow the twin-engine jet to increase its cruising speed to up to 400 miles per hour, according to Dan Hinson, the Scorpion's chief pilot. He described the jet as durable, powerful and nimble.
"I trust it," said Hinson, who flew the Scorpion to South America without an accompanying support team. "It's a very reliable airplane."
In more than 400 hours of testing, the Scorpion has scored greater than 98 percent readiness, and can operate at a cost of under $3,000 per hour, Anderson said.
This would represent a fraction of the cost the US has incurred using higher-end fighter such as the F-16 run ground support missions in uncontested skies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The aircraft is designed to get to trouble spots quickly with plenty of ordinance, but to maneuver at low speeds in order to engage ground targets on the move.
"You can save your high-end fighters for what they were designed for," Anderson said. Textron AirLand has yet to announce any firm commitments to buy the aircraft, but if orders come in, it will only take the company 18 to 24 months to deliver the aircraft, built and produced in Wichita, Kansas, he said.
On Wednesday, Thales announced it has successfully integrated its I-Master radar system into the Scorpion, giving the pilot an array of sensors including Ground Moving Target Indication, Synthetic Aperture Radar and Maritime Moving Target Indication that help identify moving targets at distance over land and sea.
"This joint exercise shows how flexible the radar is and how easily it can be integrated onto a platform. The combination of I-Master and the Scorpion jet demonstrates a powerful 'surveillance and strike' capability," Eddie Awang, Thales's vice president in charge of Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance business, said in a prepared statement.
Thales touts its I-Master radar as suited for ISR missions including maritime security, border protection, disaster/humanitarian relief and counter narcotics, capabilities that hint at the platform's possible use in Latin America.