There’s a New American Jet Fighter You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Will anyone want Textron’s Scorpion?
The newest American jet fighter is small and lightweight. It’s designed to be cheap and easy to build, repair and fly. It’s optimized for low-intensity warfare.
It’s called the Scorpion, and you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s equally doubtful anyone will want to buy it.
Textron AirLand just completed building the prototype with Cessna’s help and has begun taxi-trials of the new aircraft. If all goes well, the privately-developed warplane could make its first flight before the end of the year—just as Scott Donnelly, Rhode Island-based Textron’s chief executive officer, predicted in September.
Textron and partner AirLand Enterprises released a video of the taxi test on Dec. 9.
Meant to be cheap and flexible, the Scorpion has a reconfigurable internal payload bay that should be able to carry a variety of weapons and sensors or fuel. The aircraft will not have any dedicated built-in combat avionics such as radar or recon cameras.
Total capacity of the bay is 3,000 pounds. The aircraft also carries 6,000 pounds of internal fuel.
Scorpion has six external hard-points that could probably carry a combined 6,200 pounds of weapons and fuel tanks. At max gross take-off weight, the new fighter weighs just 11 tons and will have ferry range of 2,400 miles.
The demonstrator aircraft is powered by two Honeywell TFE731 geared turbofans, which provide a total of around 8,000 pounds of thrust. The engines give the Scorpion a maximum speed of 450 knots. A production version of the jet could be equipped with different, more powerful motors.
Donnelly said in September that if a customer can be found, the Scorpion could enter production in 2015. The new plane is tailored for training, irregular warfare, border patrol, maritime surveillance, emergency relief and counter-narcotic patrols.
“The target market that we have was kind of this hybrid of both ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and light attack,” Donnelly said. “This aircraft was designed because we saw a very very large gap between very high performance aircraft and single-engine turboprops.”
The company’s position is that buying the Scorpion would cost less than upgrading existing aircraft like the A-10 or F-16. Additionally, Textron AirLand expects that the sustainment costs for the new machine will be much lower.
When Textron AirLand first introduced the Scorpion at the Air Force Association conference in Washington, D.C. in September, analysts were baffled as to what markets Textron AirLand was hoping to target. Though the company had stated that it was aiming at the U.S. Air Force—particularly its Air National Guard component—most observers doubted the Air Force had any interest.
Indeed, the flying branch is almost certainly planning to divest itself of the much more sophisticated and capable A-10, which has never been popular with the brass. Why would the Air Force turn around and buy a new plane to replace the A-10 when it doesn’t want anything in that category?
A more pressing question is the USAF’s ability to even pay for a new plane, given shrinking budgets. “Beyond the issue of being able to afford another new program, many of the missions suggested for such an aircraft might be better performed by RPAs [remotely piloted aircraft], possibly at less cost than a manned platform if you factor in the need to maintain pilot currency,” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.
While it is highly doubtful that the Scorpion will find favor in the halls of the Pentagon, there could be buyers overseas. Analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Virginia-based Teal Group had suggested earlier that Textron AirLand would only launch a venture of this scale if it already had a potential customer in mind. Traditionally, the only major buyer for an aircraft of this class has been the United Arab Emirates.
Only time will tell how the Scorpion—the new warplane you’d probably never heard of before now—will fare on the open market.