Monday, October 24, 2016
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How COTS-Built Fighter May Win the World
Two pilots can share the flying duties in the new Scorpion strike fighter.

Wichita, KS — Something new, wonderful and breathtaking has happened in the U.S. aerospace industry. After years of budget fights, many billions of tax dollars spent, and mostly wasted on new military fighter planes that still are far from ready to use, and may never actually see service, two gutsy American companies — Textron, Inc. (NYSE: TXT) and Airland Enterprises LLC formed a joint venture called Textron AirLand LLC to design and build the next generation of lightweight fighter aircraft. They did it with zero government funding, used a lot of COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) parts and created a sleek composite shell, taking all of 23 months from those first sketches that were probably drawn on a restaurant napkin to a working, flying prototype. And they did it for an investment of about $100 million to go from concept to finished, weapons-carrying, flying prototype.

The new joint venture rolled out the first "Scorpion" fighter plane, tested it with and without weapons, and then flew it across the Atlantic to appear at air shows in England and France. The F-35 did not make an appearance; the entire fleet had been grounded because of fires breaking out on the aircraft. Did anyone happen to check the Lithium-ion batteries?

The Scorpion has no "F" designation since it was not ordered by the U.S. government, but is strictly the result of a corporate venture. It is moderately fast, with a maximum speed of 517 mph, and very nimble, but can slow down to less than 100 knots for close-in surveillance work. It seats two pilots, one behind the other, equipped with total dual controls and instrumentation, can carry a bomb load or heavy camera equipment in an enclosed "bomb bay" that has a 3,000-pound payload capacity, and has six hardened wing mounts for a variety of weapons that include Hellfire, JDAM, and air-to-air missiles. The overall design relies heavily on Textron's considerable experience building corporate jet aircraft and helicopters. The Scorpion's first test flight went off without a hitch. After all, the company knows how to build airplanes.

While well suited for a number of military tasks, in a dogfight with an F-16, the Scorpion would definitely lose, being outflown and outgunned by that well-heeled venerable warrior. It's in the cost factors that the Scorpion becomes a hands-down winner.

What's Under the Hood
It's a sweet-flying V-tailed aircraft that's powered by a pair of COTS Honeywell TF 731 engines, and was designed using much of the technology already developed by Textron for its line of Cessna corporate jets. The body is made of composites of the type already in use in civilian aircraft. There are no deep, dark military secrets here; just business secrets, such as "Just how much money did the joint venture sink into this project?" The $100 million figure cited earlier is a number that has been suggested by financial experts, but the company's top brass hasn't provided a figure.

The two Honeywell engines provide a total of 8,000 pounds of thrust, vs. 18,000 pounds for the A-10 Warthog and 27,000 pounds for the F- 16. Unlike the F-16, this is definitely not a supersonic aircraft; top speed is 517 mph, but this stingy specification is part of what makes the plane such a bargain to fly. The F-16 costs $15,000 per hour to fly; the A-10 costs $9,000 per hour. The Scorpion can fly for $2500 to $3000 per hour. It can perform a large percentage of the missions that are envisioned for the F-35 at a small fraction of the cost. Textron AirLand lists six missions for the plane: border security; maritime security; counternarcotics; disaster response; aerospace control against low, slow airborne threats; and irregular warfare support.

The plane comes with a high-definition infrared and electro-optical camera system that is capable of beaming real-time video to military commanders on the ground, to other aircraft and to emergency responders. The plane has an 82 cubic-foot internal payload bay that can accommodate 3,000 pounds of surveillance and electronic warfare gear, and its twin jet engines generate plenty of electrical power to run and cool its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems.

For armament, the Scorpion has six hard points on its wings for carrying up to 3,100 pounds of munitions, Textron AirLand says. The plane can accommodate Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, heatseeking air-to-air missiles and a variety of guided and unguided bombs. And the plane can also be fitted with a pod-mounted gun.

The future still isn't mapped out for this aircraft. Its estimated cost to new buyers will be slightly less than $20 million, and there definitely will be buyers after its showing at air shows in the U.K. and on the Continent. Observers believe that the global market will absorb about 2,000 of the new fighters. The big question is will one of those new buyers be the U.S. DoD?  

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