Company Takes Risk on New Light Strike Plane

By Valerie Insinna
Air Force officials have their hands full trying to keep massive procurements like the joint strike fighter and KC-46 tanker on track in a lean budgetary climate. But the lack of funds hasn’t stopped defense contractors from pitching new aircraft.

Textron Inc. and AirLand Enterprises in September debuted their new Scorpion prototype, a tactical jet aircraft that the companies funded without government dollars.

Officials from the Textron-AirLand joint venture are touting the Scorpion as a low-cost, versatile alternative to existing platforms. While the Air Force would still need aircraft such as the F-22 or F-35 in combat, the Scorpion could fly air patrol and conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions at a much lower cost.

The dual-engine jet fighter is suited for a range of missions such as irregular warfare, border patrol, maritime surveillance, emergency relief, counter-narcotics and air-defense operations, which would make it a good fit for the Air National Guard, the company said.

The Scorpion is equipped with an internal payload bay that can store up to 3,000 pounds of sensors, fuel or other gear. It has a maximum speed of 450 knots and a flight ceiling of 45,000 feet.

When asked at the 2013 Air Force Association conference whether the service was interested in the aircraft, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh was skeptical that it would be possible to fund such an investment in the current fiscal climate.

Although he acknowledged that a light attack plane would be useful, for example, in building partnership capacity with other nations, “that is outside the core mission set of the United States Air Force. So if our resources are going to be challenged to the point where we’re having to not perform our core missions at a level that we think is necessary to meet our current war plans, we’re certainly not going to recommend that we support … peripheral missions,” he said.

“In this particular budget environment, it may be tougher to justify that kind of action.”

There may be a need for such aircraft in NATO countries with aging fighter jet fleets or in African, Central and South American nations with emerging air forces, he said. “Whether the U.S. Air Force would have the opportunity to be part of this development, which would make it more attractive in some cases to partners, that’s the question.”

The Scorpion prototype is currently going through testing, with its first flight scheduled for later this year. Development of the aircraft began in January 2012.

Topics: Aviation

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