WASHINGTON — Textron AirLand's Scorpion jet continues to look for a first customer, but the company remains optimistic about the future of its ISR/light strike platform.
In a March interview, Bill Anderson, president of Textron AirLand, told Defense News that corporate backing for the jet remains strong despite not having signed a contract for the jet in the 18 months since it was unveiled to the public.
"We are very confident we will get a customer," Anderson said. "We haven't even discussed an end date. We're fully funded, we continue with the development, we're moving forward and we see no reason to stop."
The Scorpion got a recent boost in attention when Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of USAF Air Combat Command, indicated the Scorpion could be a fit for a future close air support (CAS) requirement.
Asked March 6 about the Scorpion as a potential fill-in for lower-end CAS operations, Carlisle replied: "It could. It could."
"That's not something that's outside the realm," he said. "It may be. We have gone out and looked at other platforms to see if they could meet the low-end CAS capacity at a reasonable cost-per-flying-hour, and we've looked at it and done some research. We're keeping our eyes open."
Unsurprisingly, Anderson said he is "very happy" that Carlisle said that publicly, adding that his team has supplied USAF with information on a number of mission capabilities for the Scorpion, including the capability to performing CAS.
"It was always part of the plane," Anderson said. "When you talk a strike mission, you're really talking air-to-ground … with our multispectral ISR capability, our ability to communicate with the ground forces, it's a natural mission."
The Scorpion is designed to have a flexible payload, with six hard points, each of which can carry about 1,700 pounds. The company has explored a number of potential munition load outs, from something similar to Boeing's small diameter bomb to a guided rocket.
The jet can also host a gun pod, either of the 50 caliber or 20mm kind, although Anderson echoed the belief held by Air Force officials that the future of CAS is not a gun, but rather precision munitions.
"I don't know if you'd consider a gun the best weapon for modern CAS because guns, by their nature, are aerial weapons," Anderson said. "But if the ground commander wants a platform with a gun on it, we can host a gun. It's really dictated by the nature of the operation and the threat we're trying to engage."
Another mission being targeted by the Scorpion is the T-X trainer program for the Air Force. Textron is looking at the option of a trainer variant of the Scorpion.
What that design will look like is still being finalized, as the final requirements for T-X were only released on March 20. But Anderson says feels the Scorpion's $3,000-per-flying-hour cost is a differentiator for their offering.
"The industry can build any airplane [the Air Force] requires," Anderson said. "It's about how much is it going to cost and how long is it going to take? The key kicker is operating cost. What do you want to pay, per hour, to operate an airplane?"
But while USAF programs are a major focus for Textron, defense analysts predict a first sale is more likely to come from the international community.
Anderson said conversations with international customers "are going very, very well" but declined to name which countries are currently in talks.
Sources say the UAE is interested in buying the Scorpion, but is reluctant to become the first customer without other nations also signed on.
Asked about the potential for a group series of countries to become the launch customer, Anderson acknowledged it was something the company is weighing.
"A chief of staff [at Farnborough last year] from a small air force said this would be a fantastic aircraft for several of countries to band together and buy it jointly," Anderson said. "So of course we would be willing to work with a group of nations. It would benefit us, obviously, in economies of scale and we can pass that on to customers."
However, Anderson clarified, "we are not actively having a conversation with a consortium of countries right now. We're definitely open to it, but that would be further down the line."
The international community will get a look at the Scorpion this summer, which will be on static display at both the Paris Air Show and Royal International Air Tattoo, held at Fairford, England.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.