America’s Scorpion Jet Fighter Could Fly in Asia and Africa
Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates are interested in this lightweight combat plane
When Textron AirLand first announced the Scorpion—a lightweight surveillance and strike aircraft—last year, it raised a few eyebrows.
Now the American company is talking about the first two potential customers for the diminutive jet. Namely, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates.
Neither country has bought the Scorpion … yet. But the company is pitching the aircraft as a solution for featherweight and middle-size countries looking for an advanced combat plane that doesn’t break the bank.
This is especially the case for countries that need eyes in the sky—and the ability to go after insurgents.
For the most part, modern combat jets are typically multi-billion-dollar projects bristling with exotic materials, high-tech sensors, weapons and computer networks.
Most of these jet designs also treat aerial combat as requiring the best engines, most powerful radars and hardest-hitting long-range missiles. At the same time, most of these aircraft boast some degree of stealth, the operational value of which is hotly debated.
The downside to all this technology? It gets very expensive, and causes the programs to almost inevitably fall behind schedule.
But the Scorpion is quite different, as it relies heavily on off-the-shelf commercial parts. For instance, the plane’s flight control hardware relies on dual hydraulic systems based on Cessna’s Citation X business jet.
“We routinely make software updates to the avionics system in days, not months,” said Dale Tutt, the Scorpion’s chief engineer.
The Scorpion’s developers also want the final product to be cheap to build, and affordable across the aircraft’s entire operational lifespan. So-called “hidden” costs are often what makes today’s jet fighters such a burden on defense budgets.
Take Austria, for example, where a fleet of Eurofighter Typhoons proved so expensive to procure, Vienna slashed orders from 18 to 15 jets. The fighters fly with only the most basic weapons and sensors, and have only short-range air-to-air missiles.
As austerity measures bite, the jets are pulling fewer hours on air policing duties—an average of 11 hours a day in what is their sole operational role. Filling the gap are 44-year-old Saab 105 jet trainers. The Scorpion has the potential to do the job of both at a fraction of the cost.
While the Typhoon costs around $15,000 per hour it’s in the air, Textron AirLand claim a figure of $3,000 per hour for the Scorpion—with a purchase price of less than $20 million per copy. A partially used, baseline-model Typhoon, as acquired by Austria? $166 million.
To be sure, the Typhoon is more capable—but Austria doesn’t use them to anything like their full potential. Only the richest nations can afford to.
While most fighters can carry out multiple roles, the twin-engine Scorpion is genuinely flexible—with a focus on irregular warfare, border patrol, maritime surveillance, emergency relief, counter-narcotics and air defense missions.
Textron AirLand announced the maiden flight of the two-seat Scorpion in December 2013, meaning that fewer than two years passed between the initial design and its first flight.
The company continued the flight tests, pushing the performance envelope at various speeds, altitudes and climb rates, as well as putting the avionics, flight controls and landing system through their paces.
“In these early flights, we have evaluated the aircraft performance and tested a wide range of mechanical and electronic systems,” said Dan Hinson, Scorpion chief test pilot and a veteran U.S. Navy aviator and combat veteran.
“The Scorpion is a very agile platform,” he added.
Back when the aircraft first broke cover, the big question was whether anyone would actually buy the distinctly unglamorous Scorpion. Now, two nations might. And the manufacturer confirms that others are taking a close look at the subsonic attacker.
The two nations now linked with the Scorpion are the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria. Both are already in the process of beefing up their airborne surveillance and counter-insurgency forces to combat asymmetric threats—and both have a track record of procuring similar aircraft.
The Scorpion would be a logical addition to a fast-growing UAE close air support and special missions fleet that includes prop-driven Air Tractor AT-802Us—an armed, upgraded crop duster.
However, a U.S. official quoted by Defense News reckons the UAE is interested in Scorpions for training purposes and for the military’s aerobatics team.
Here, they could substitute for pricier Alenia Aermacchi M-346 jet trainers. The UAE has selected these trainers, but has not yet ordered them. So it’s not too late.
Textron AirLand is meanwhile working on a dedicated trainer version of the Scorpion that would better suit these roles. But UAE officials are hesitant to sign up right away for the Scorpion, preferring to wait until another country buys it first.
That county could be Nigeria. Here there’s a requirement for a bigger counter-insurgent fleet—currently based around a variety of aging fixed-wing types all suffering from low availability, as well as ubiquitous Mi-35 helicopter gunships.
Speaking at the IQPC Fighter Conference in London, a Nigerian air force officer confirmed that the Scorpion was on the radar, as the military seeks more effective ways to defeat Boko Haram militants.
In contrast to Nigeria’s current fleet of fixed-wing jets—sourced from a variety of European manufacturers—the Scorpion would boast a precision weapons capability, modern surveillance sensors and superior agility, all in the same package.
The officer noted that an initial purchase could involve a “a squadron’s worth” of Scorpions.
Textron AirLand also hopes to sell the planes to the Pentagon.
In August, the Scorpion took part in Vigilant Guard 2014, a large-scale, multi-state disaster response exercise conducted in Kansas by U.S. Northern Command and the National Guard. During the maneuvers, the Scorpion provided high-definition, multi-spectral aerial reconnaissance—and shared full-motion color video and communications with other aircraft and ground stations.
The pilot wore a helmet-mounted cueing system, of the type familiar to high-performance jet fighter pilots.
When a trainer version of the Scorpion comes on line, Textron AirLand can then take a tilt at the U.S. Air Force’s T-X trainer replacement competition. That could yield orders for anything from 350 aircraft to more than 1,000.
That is, if anyone’s really interested in buying.