Is Textron Airland's Scorpion close to its first customer?

Rory Jackson

The Scorpion after completing its first transatlantic flight, July 2014. Source: Textron Airland.

Since its first flight in December 2013, the Textron Airland Scorpion has attracted the attention of prospective buyers all over the world. Over the past two years, nations in every major continent have been drawn to the aircraft’s many applications and its standout cost-effectiveness.

The Scorpion features twin turbofan engines that produce 8,000lbf of thrust and a top speed of 833 km/h. The tandem-seat cockpit allows for two crewmembers to fully utilise the multi-mission capabilities of the aircraft, from ISR to Close Air Support (CAS), training missions, air interdiction, and more. By way of six wing hardpoints, an internal payload bay, and a versatile, modular architecture, it can be equipped with 9,200lbs of ordnance and electronic system components to whatever end its operator seeks.

All this is achievable at a unit cost of less than $20 million, and a long-run operating cost of no more than $3000 per hour. But for all these merits and affordable prices, the aircraft has still failed to secure its first buyer.

The jet was originally marketed to the U.S. Air National Guard, which sought to replace aging F-16s and A-10s. However, increasing pressure from the Air Force to switch to unmanned systems has led to the Air Guard seeking more purchases of UAVs in recent months.

Multiple countries across Africa and Asia have come close to ordering fleets of Scorpions. November 2014 saw both Nigeria and the UAE express open interest in purchasing several of the aircraft. However, US restrictions on tech exports to Nigeria, and the UAE’s reluctance to be the platform’s launch customer has left both of these prospects in limbo.

Fortunately for Textron Airland and its President, Bill Anderson, the Scorpion has no shortage of potential buyers. Defence IQ reached out to Bill Anderson to discuss his company’s progress this year with the some of the interested parties.

The Royal Navy

Earlier this year, the Royal Navy expressed interest in the Scorpion for maritime patrol missions, an area in which the UK has lacked capability since scrapping the Nimrod aircraft in 2010.

Questions remain as to what exact role the Scorpion would play in British maritime security: Would the small twin-jet aircraft compete against the dedicated Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) expected to be proposed to Britain following this year’s SDSR? Or would it merely fly in a supporting role, as back-up to the larger aircraft?

Anderson acknowledges that MPAs, such as Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon, which is thought to be the frontrunner for any business coming out of SDSR 2015, as "a completely different class of airplane, so the Scorpion, in the maritime patrol world, is not a competitor, nor would I say it’s a support aircraft."

Instead, he proposes a third solution. "What I see is a ‘complementary capability’ to the very large, very expensive, primarily anti-submarine warfare, aircraft. You can have your MPAs conducting your deep-water anti-submarine warfare, with the Scorpion doing more coastal and littoral work - though they also have underwater surveillance capabilities."

"You don’t always need to be launching the P-8 when a more appropriate asset is available," he points out.


The Indian Air Force

More recently, local reports confirmed in September that the Indian Air Force was keen on procuring the Scorpion as an Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT).

Anderson confirmed that the company had officially responded to two Requests For Information (RFIs) from the Indian armed Forces. However, he said Textron "have had no direct negotiations at this point, other than supplying information."

Potential troubles might arise from the ‘Make In India’ initiative, which enshrines prime minister Narendra Modi’s drive to make the country independent from defence importing military equipment. Transfer of technology is increasingly a condition placed on deals made with the Indian government and armed forces, but Western primes have not always shared fully the precise know-how to enable Indian engineers to re-create the vehicles and systems foreign companies manufacture on their soil.

Anderson notes, however, that the complete transfer of technology is "not a Textron Airland decision."

"We have to follow US law and export policy," said Anderson. "I anticipate we would work with the desires of the Indian government, abiding by regulation, and come to some agreement on what is manufactured where and the technology that we’d be allowed to transfer."

In addition, he foresees no serious issue with the potentials for bureaucracy, offsets, and regulation common in India’s defence sector and shared by many of the Scorpion’s other potential buyers.

"Textron is a global company, we have operations in 35 different countries around the world, so we’re really not opposed to manufacturing globally at all. It’s what we do, routinely."

The U.S. Navy

Closer to home, the Scorpion’s utility as a trainer aircraft has caught the eye of the U.S. Navy, which is seeking a means to keep its F/A-18 pilots battle-ready while avoiding overuse of the aging high-end fighter.

"I would classify our talks as ‘very positive’, but still in the early stages," Anderson explains. "We’ve had very positive discussions with the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) that is responsible for weapons development and also procurement of aircraft. Very well-received, especially on the discussions around pilot proficiency training."

Many other bodies associated with the Navy are getting involved also, including the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). "To my understanding, they’re using very old, very expensive P-3s, and they’re very unreliable." Notably, the Scorpion’s internal payload bay allows for the aircraft to be re-modulated to the same maritime surveillance purposes of the NRL’s modified Lockheed P-3 Orions.

"Essentially, we’re offering a very cost-effective, modular mission open architecture, where you can quickly integrate new sensors and new weapons into the system, without then having to re-certify the entire aircraft. We’ve applicated the operational flight programme from the missions to the systems, so, for instance we’ve integrated the Thales I-Master radar in less than two weeks, and that’s including the software."

"We’ve also been invited to brief the Naval Warfare Development Center, and again, they’re very interested in the Scorpion’s capability. They’re very interested in the high reliability and very low operating costs, and what they could use the aircraft for," he adds.

The persistent question asked of Anderson is ‘can the Scorpion emulate a certain segment of F/A-18E Super Hornet missions?’

"And that answer is ‘yes’," he confirms. "We have our training and simulation company, and we have the capability to emulate other aircraft within the Scorpion."

What it won’t do

It might strike one as peculiar, then, that the Textron Airland President confirmed last month that neither the Scorpion, nor a modified version of the aircraft, would be competing for the U.S. Air Force’s T-X trainer competition. Why could the Scorpion not be re-fitted to train pilots of the latest generation of fighter jets?

Anderson, however, stands by the move. "When you study the engineering analysis of the kind of plane they’re asking for, I was not comfortable calling it a ‘Scorpion mod’, because it’s so drastically different from what they’re asking for. I did go on to say, if we chose to compete - and that decision has not been made, it would not be made by me, that would be a corporate decision - we would create an airplane that was compliant with the requirements of the U.S. Air Force."

Interestingly, Anderson is not troubled by the competition the T-X might eventually bring to the IJT market when it enters operation in 2023.

"The T-X is quite far off, and the Scorpion is a multi-mission ISR/strike airplane. When we did our market survey, very little of the market survey was the training market, because again, they already have the T-50, the M346, the Hawk, and I believe the Chinese L-15 and the Yak-130. That market space is very well-serviced. We designed [the Scorpion] for a market space that is not very well-serviced, and that is the ISR-strike, multi-mission market."

It is a market poised to grow in the coming decade. Worldwide defence budgets are contracting, but air force requirements show no sign of following suit, with up to $367 billion forecast to be spent on fighter procurement over the next 15 years. Counter-narcotics in Latin America, insurgencies and piracy around Africa, CAS in the Middle East, and airborne ISR and disaster aid all over the world could benefit from the Scorpion’s value for money. Many customers have taken note, and many more will no doubt continue to do so.

Right now, all they need is one.