Monday, October 7, 2013

Textron's Scorpion: Bold Move, But Is There a Market?

The company says there’s a market for a new light-attack and reconnaissance aircraft, which was unveiled on the Sept. 16 cover of Aviation Week & Space Technology. But some industry analysts argue that Scorpion, the clean-sheet twin-engine jet that Textron designed with partner AirLand, will flop because nobody needs it.

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Writing his monthly column in the Oct. 7 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia applauds the initiative but argues that Scorpion is targeting a phantom market. What do you think?

Here is Aboulafia’s full commentary: 

Scorpion—Bold Idea, But Where’s The Market?

Textron, in partnership with Airland Enterprises, recently unveiled the Scorpion, a largely clean-sheet light combat/ISR jet that is being prepared for a first flight this month. New military aircraft are so scarce that any new prototype is bound to garner attention, including an Aviation Week cover story, and it's good to see innovation make an appearance in the aerospace and defense industry. Yet, despite all the talk of paradigm shifting, low costs and “80% solutions,” what exactly is the market for this product?

For the U.S. Air Force, Scorpion is not an 80% solution, it's a solution to a problem that does not exist. Close-air support is not a pressing requirement for the service; it has been been trying for years to retire its A-10 fleet. The A-10s have been extensively modernized and are far more effective at destroying land targets than Scorpion would be. Scorpion would cost less to operate, but keeping the A-10s would have no impact on the procurement budget; their payload is much larger and effectiveness, much greater.

Similarly, if the Air Force wanted a good small ISR (intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance) platform, it would not be thinking about retiring its MC-12W/Beechcraft King Air fleet, recently acquired under Project Liberty. When you retire a brand-new asset, it is not because you think you can find a lower-cost aircraft to replace it.

Another mission identified for Scorpion is air patrol. But to provide any kind of air patrol capability, Scorpion will need to offer a radar and supersonic performance. In the 1980s, the Air Force looked at Northrop's F-20 as a basic air-defense fighter. It had both a radar and supersonic performance, but the service rejected it in favor of the more capable F-16.

The Air Force does have one firm requirement for an aircraft in this class: fulfilling the T-X program to replace the T-38. Two decades ago, Cessna took a similar approach when it created a tandem-seat trainer candidate using its CitationJet to compete for the Defense Department's Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) contract. Two prototypes were built, but the Pentagon rejected the offering. Scorpion is roughly in that JPATS class in terms of configuration and engine power. To perform the T-X mission, it would need more powerful engines and a wing with at least some sweep. In effect, Textron would need a different aircraft.

The King Air has become the ISR platform of choice, in the U.S. and abroad. A turboprop offers good range and endurance, good low-altitude performance, and plenty of room for sensors and operator consoles. It's far from clear what a jet would bring to the mission or how it would avoid a cost disadvantage. It's more likely that countries will look to save money with remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in this role.

This leaves the attack mission, again, solely for export customers. Once, U.S. companies did a brisk business selling attack jets such as the A-37, A-4 and A-7, along with light fighters like the F-5. Cessna's A/T-37 alone brought sales of more than 1,250 aircraft, including 272 exports. But that market all but disappeared in the 1980s as most countries that operated light planes grew richer, and the rest grew relatively poorer or less inclined to spend on military equipment. Major A-4 and F-5 customers included Israel, Kuwait, Turkey, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, South Vietnam, Spain, South Korea, Canada, Switzerland and Brazil. All have moved on to more capable aircraft, while some light-combat aircraft customers, such as Kenya or Argentina, have moved in the other direction.

Another reason the light fixed-wing attack market collapsed is the rise of the dedicated attack helicopter. The rest of the light-attack space is filled by inexpensive light-attack turboprops, such as Embraer's Super Tucano. This niche is good for roughly 8-16 aircraft annually. Increasingly, RPA are performing in a light-attack role, too.

Finally, light-combat demand collapsed because of a disconnect between trainers and combat aircraft. Nations once procured dual-use platforms such as the F-5/T-38 or A-37/T-37. Trainers themselves were often dual-use assets; even wealthy countries, like Israel or the U.K., gave some jet trainers a secondary combat role. Today, most countries either buy something inexpensive or outsource their pilot training altogether.

In short, Textron is to be commended for investing its own money to develop a new aircraft. It's possible the company backed the Scorpion because it had a likely launch customer. But even with a notional customer, it is hard to see where this aircraft fits into the global market.

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