After 18 months of secret development work led by a team of Cessna engineers, a Textron and Airland Enterprises joint venture unveiled on September 16 a brand new jet: the Scorpion.
Currently being assembled at Cessna’s Pawnee facility in Wichita, the twin-engine jet is described as a versatile Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)/Strike aircraft platform. Mostly made out of composites, it has a 14.4m wingspan and its length is 43.5ft. The Scorpion is powered by two Honeywell TFE 731 turbofans with 8,000 pounds of thrust. To perform its ISR/ground attack missions, the unswept wings are equipped with 6 hard points in addition to an internal payload bay.
It also has two retractable sensor mounts. The latter can be 3,000 pound while the external one 6,100. With 9,000lb of internal fuel, it will have a ferry range of 4 440km. The maximum take-off weight is set at 21,205lbs. Engines have already been powered on, and the maiden flight is expected to take place by year end.
Such announcement is surprising since there is no on-going tender which requirements would meet the Scorpion’s characteristics. However, Cessna’s officials are confident in the sales potential of their new product. Textron’s CEO Scott Donnely told ASD News that “[they] began developing the Scorpion in January 2012 with the objective to design, build and fly the world’s most affordable tactical jet aircraft capable of performing lower threat battlefield and homeland security missions”.
For F. Whitten Peters, a former Secretary of the Air Force, acting as both an investor and an advisor to AirLand Enterprises “Scorpion will fill a critical price and performance gap in the tactical military aircraft market.”
For Bill Sweetman (of Aviation Week), the idea is to sacrifice fighter type air to air performance and a heavy weapon load in order to reduce acquisition and operating cost. In times of global budget constraints, and clear cuts in the defence budget, Textron-Airland bets on figures more than facts in order to win the heart of U.S. congressmen.
According to Caitlin Lee, from Jane’s Defense Weekly, the Scorpion’s price tag should be inferior to legacy platforms such as the AV-8B Harrier II, or the A-10, with unitary cost ranging between $25 million and $50 million. However, such amount of money remains pretty consequent and does not match well with a communication campaign based on the idea of a cheap aircraft.
The manufacturer insists on the fact that acquiring the Scorpion would be cheaper than upgrading the fleets of Fairchild Republic A-10s or Lockheed F-16s. However, the main gain should concern the operating costs of the aircraft. While USAF estimate the operating cost for one hour of flight of an F-16 is around $25,000, Textron Airland claims that it would cost only $3,000 per hour for its Scorpion. It partly results from the fact that many parts of the Scorpion come from existing Cessna platforms. As related in AIN, the flap drive mechanism will come from the Citation XLS and Mustang, while the aileron drive mechanism comes from the Citation X. This low operating cost appears to be the core of the JV’s strategy. Gil Roy, wrote in French aero blog Aerobuzz.fr, that the JV has calculated that replacing the F-16s, A-10s and F-15s by the Scorpion could result in $1 billion savings per year.
Though, the usefulness of the Scorpion is being challenged by many observers and analysts from the aerospace sector. In effect, it is more expensive than its current competitor manufactured by Embraer and Beechcraft, based on powerful turboprops. Others estimate that several Scorpion missions could be performed by drones. This particular point deserves to be discussed. In effect, current MALE drones cannot fly at 833km/h, carry as much weapons as the Scorpion would, nor perform the same combat missions. A more technical question is the utility of an internal weapon bay compared to external hard points. Such capacity is petty costly to develop and does not match with the common idea of a lowprice aircraft.
Another question remains unanswered. In spite of decommissioning rumors on the type, the USAF has just awarded a contract to Boeing for the furniture of 56 A-10 wingkits. The idea is to extend the service life of the Warthog until 2030 if possible. So it would be pretty surprising to see the USAF pouring money in this modernization program and then acquire a new, not so cheap, platform.
However, it is too early to judge about the future of the Scorpion. If it plans to gather political support, Paul Bertorelli, from AVWeb, warns Cessna that “it will need lots of friends in Congress to overcome the legions of supporters that Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have cultivated over the years.”
But it may end up to be a serious candidate for future T-X jet trainer competition despite the fact that it is not the JV’s main target and that it would require modifying the aircraft to a certain extent.