This is an unexpected venture for Textron, which is not known for purpose-built, fixed-wing aircraft designed for combat. The company's Bell Helicopter, maker of the H-1 and V-22 families, and Textron Systems, which designs armored patrol vehicles and unmanned aircraft, have strong ties with the Pentagon. But, Textron is not at the top of the USAF's list of go-to contractors for aircraft. AirLand's top brass, however, have briefed senior Air Force officials about the project and are likely to be actively involved in the sales pitch.
When Peters was secretary of the Air Force, the service planned to recapitalize its combat fleet with what it called a “high-low” mix of twin-engine F-22s and single-engine F-35s. Technical problems and delays in both programs have dramatically increased the prices of these aircraft, both manufactured by Lockheed Martin. As a result, the Air Force only received 187 F-22s and will struggle to buy the 1,763 included in the current program. Also, the aircraft are designed to be low-observable penetrators, an advantage that comes with a high operating cost.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, says he hopes to stabilize the F-35A's cost at $80-90 million at peak production; aircraft currently being built are estimated at $124 million, including engines and retrofits needed that are related to ongoing testing.
The Scorpion is designed to offer a new low end to USAF's high-low mix for overwatch missions—the ones air forces do most of the time, Peters says. And, he notes, Scorpions could perform that role far more economically.
The Air Force, however, has not suggested a need for such an aircraft. A purchase would likely be preceded by a lengthy requirements process, followed by a competition. Textron could be hoping for the kind of support experienced by General Atomics, which managed to sell hundreds of Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft to the service without a requirement, in large part due to unwavering congressional support for the utility of the aircraft.
Though designed as a tandem-seat aircraft, Scorpion can be flown by a single pilot. Textron is building it to include a highly simplified and reconfigurable bay that is capable of carrying 3,000 lb. of weapons or intelligence-collecting equipment; the aircraft also has six hard points total. The twin Honewell TF731 engines were selected to provide ample power and cooling for a variety of ISR payloads, Donnelly says. Though used for the demonstrator, these engines could be swapped out.
Textron AirLand selected Cobham for the cockpit, which will feature modern flat-panel displays. Scorpion is not fly-by-wire, a decision made to keep cost down and simplify the design. However, Donnelly acknowledges that an unmanned version could be of interest in the future; so this capability could eventually be incorporated to take the pilot out of the cockpit.
AirLand gathered a group of composites experts with experience making Very Light Jets and the F-22 to help design the aircraft, which was built at Textron's Wichita facility. Eyeing a robust international market for the aircraft, Donnelly says that the use of composites will provide a substantial service life for the cost, a factor that could appeal to nations in the Pacific-Rim region or the Middle East, where environments are harsh.
Although the team does not plan to wait for the Air Force to buy the Scorpion before marketing it abroad, Donnelly acknowledges that the Pentagon's stamp of approval in the form of a purchase would substantially boost the aircraft's marketability for foreign sales.