Creating a Clean Sheet Light Attack/ISR Aircraft: The Emergence of the Scorpion


2017-08-08 By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

The USAF is looking to add a light attack aircraft to its inventory to deal with air support operations at the low intensity warfare end of the equation.

And they are conducting an experiment to determine a way ahead throughout the month of August with four aircraft from three manufacturers.

Participating in the USAF Light Attack Experiment as the service evaluates the potential purchase of a light attack aircraft under its OA-X initiative are two Textron aircraft —the Scorpion jet and the Beechcraft AT-6, the Brazilian Embraer/Sierra Nevada A-29 Super Tucano, and the AT-802L

Longsword offered by Air Tractor and L3. Scorpion are the only jets among a field of turboprop aircraft.

The fourth aircraft was a late entrant into the experiment.

The USAF described the experiment this way in a March 20, 2017 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs article:

The Air Force released an industry invitation to participate today to evaluate the military utility of light attack platforms in future force structure.

The invitation is part of a broader Air Force effort to explore cost-effective attack platform options. The live-fly experiment is an element of the Light Attack Capabilities Experimentation Campaign run by the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, will begin this week at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

“This is an evolution of the close air support experimentation effort which we have now broadened to include a variety of counter-land missions typical of extended operations since Desert Storm,” said Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition’s military deputy.

Industry members are invited to participate with aircraft that may meet an Air Force need for a low-cost capability that is supportable and sustainable. This spring the Air Force will analyze data received from vendors seeking to participate in the experimentation campaign and will then invite selected offerors to participate in a live-fly capabilities assessment this summer.

The Air Force will host the live-fly experiment to assess the capabilities of these off-the-shelf attack aircraft. Industry participants will participate with suitable aircraft, which will be flown by Air Force personnel in scenarios designed to highlight aspects of various combat missions, such as close air support, armed reconnaissance, combat search and rescue, and strike control and reconnaissance.

The live-fly experiment also includes the employment of weapons commonly used by other fighter/attack aircraft to demonstrate the capabilities of light attack aircraft for traditional counter-land missions.

“After 25 years of continuous combat operations, our Air Force is in more demand than ever,” said Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements. “Since we don’t expect deployment requirements to decrease, we have to look for innovative and affordable ways to meet capability demands in permissive environments while building and maintaining readiness to meet emerging threats in more contested environments.”

Scorpion jet multi-mission aircraft. Credit: Textron Aircraft

The live-fly experimentation will include a number of mission events including medium altitude basic day and night surface attack, precision munition surface attack, armed reconnaissance and close air support.

“This is an experiment, not a competition,” said Harris, emphasizing the event may not necessarily lead to any acquisition.

Experimentation and prototyping are envisioned as potential pathways to identify new operational concepts and candidate capabilities which can be rapidly and affordably fielded. The Air Force is interested in using agile solutions by leveraging rapid acquisition authorities where appropriate, to meet anticipated needs.

The results of the Light Attack Capabilities Experimentation Campaign will be used to inform requirements and criteria for future investment decisions.

The advantages of a light attack aircraft were well put by Bill Buckey, former Deputy Commander of the NATO Airbase at Kandahar in 2009 and then vice-president for business development for Embraer North America when we did the interview in 2011:

It’s a different way of looking at the existing layer of air combat support. You’re offering the same capability but you’re driving down your cost of providing that capability.  In a COIN environment, one of the insurgent’s main goals is to drive up your cost of operating to an unacceptable level.  The cost of using fast jets is in this environment is simply unsustainable.

SLD:  Those costs per hour should be augmented as well, I would guess, by the cost of logistic support in an extreme environment?

Buckey:  What does that pound of fuel cost by the time it’s going through the boom into that F-16?  There’s a monstrous logistical tail to get fuel into Kandahar; the ships that get it to Karachi, the trucks that drive it up into Kandahar.  Then we eventually have to get some of it out to FOBs like Dwyer and Bastion.

SLD:  But your point is by driving down price point for the operation is a crucial strategic element.

Buckey:  Exactly. 

It was a concern of Gen. McChrystal and it’s clearly what Gen. Mattis was trying to address at JFCOM and now as CENTCOM. 

If you believe that a goal of an insurgency is to drive your cost of operating to an unacceptable level, we’re doing a great job of it over there right now given the logistical constraints and the aircraft we’re putting against the operational requirement. 

What we have to do is field the same capabilities in a platform that’s hundreds of dollars per flight hour instead of tens of thousands per flight hour.

More recently, when Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson spoke at an Air Force Association event Aug. 1st she highlighted the need to learn how fast and cost-effectively the Air Force can get capabilities to the warfighter.

She emphasized the need to explore new ways of conducting business, including incorporating more input from industry and universities in the decision process, approaching innovation differently, eliminating bureaucracy and cultivating greater agility and flexibility through the use of open architecture systems.

“We need to get our ideas from the lab bench to the flightline fast,” she said.

Textron’s new build aircraft for the global marketplace was designed from the ground up to maximize useful payload by using the modular payload concept such as we have seen with the Blackjack UAS.

They are also leveraging existing air subsystems to ensure good global logistical reach and cost effectiveness.

Textron conducted its defense marketplace analysis and then launched the clean sheet Scorpion jet project, and then celebrated its first flight less than two years later.

We had a chance to discuss the emergence of the Scorpion jet with William Harris, the VP at Textron who is leading the Scorpion global sales effort.

Harris has been with Textron for more than twenty years and before that was an F-16 pilot in the USAF.

The process of putting the new build aircraft was done over a five-year period of looking at the global marketplace and thinking through the nature of a new entrant into that marketplace.

Once the market assessment was done, the process of putting the new aircraft together was quite rapid, namely 23 months.

“We looked to build an aircraft which could not only do close air support attack missions but could fit well into evolving ISR missions as well.

“We looked at our best practices from building other aircraft and applied these to the Scorpion project. We looked to build as well with the global logistics chain in mind. A good example is the engine we selected for Scorpion.

“There are thousands of Honeywell TFE-731 engines in the market, they’re easy to overhaul, they’re easily found and they are very well proven.”

We discussed the modular payload concept which is clearly a key element in the plane’s design and its attractiveness, given the dynamics of change in the payload market.

“We have three internal payload base that you can customize.

“We have the ability to change out sensors and weapons as the technology and market develops.

“We have six hard points on the wings and an open architecture stores management system.

“We have an L-3 Force X weapons computer that allows for rapid change as well.

“We are using already available systems, which guarantees performance and cost effectiveness.

“We’re not using necessarily new technology, particularly when it comes to the stores management system and the Widows Force X computer, because those systems are already being used on several aircraft and they already have software plug-ins that go into those particular computers that allow you to drop and easily change the aircraft configuration.

“We are not a fly by wire aircraft which keeps the cost down. Everything is more or less federated, particularly if you look at the avionics system.

“That is completely separate from the weapons computer or any imagery up on the HUD.

“It’s projected up on the HUD or through the helmet-mounted cueing system independent of what you see for your weapons displays.”

SLD: What kinds of countries or mission sets do you have in mind for the broader global market space?

Harris: “Because of the ability to adapt the airplane or change payloads of the airplane it is very versatile.

“It can do persistent ISR over land and urban environments.

“It has a very low noise signature, so whether it’s out on the battle field or in an urban environment, you’re not going to draw a lot of attention that you’re there.

“The other is a maritime capability with the airplane.

“We demonstrated the Scorpion with the Empire Test School in the UK a couple of years ago. We employed a Thales iMaster to test our ability to detect friendly from unfriendly ships in the maritime environment.

“These combined capabilities make this a very attractive aircraft for a number of global customers and we are marketing the capability worldwide.”

SLD: How many airframes are you flying currently?

Harris:”Currently, there are four Scorpion jets operating in three locations worldwide by the summer of 2017.

“Four total, that’s for the first prototype, D-1, which is the one we had in Paris and in fact at RIAT.

“Then we’ve got P-1 and P-2 and P-3, which are the production-conforming aircraft.

“In fact, this summer Textron showcased the maturity, reliability, and robustness of its Scorpion jet fleet by simultaneously operating all four aircraft at three locations worldwide.

“The diverse cadre of Scorpion Jet technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots displayed the prototype of the Scorpion — powered by twin Honeywell TFE731 engines — at the recent Paris air show and RIAT in the UK while also conducting operations with one of its three production aircraft at its base in Wichita and conducting its production aircraft weapons separation testing with the other two production jets along the NAVAIR Atlantic Test Ranges (ATR) near Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.

“Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the team’s test efficiency enabled them to achieve 100 percent mission completion rate four days early, having launched 2.75″ Hydra-70 rockets, fired HMP-400 LCC gun pods, and dropped GBU-12 laser-guided bombs in five different configurations on five consecutive test days as it showcased the production Scorpion jet’s reliability, adaptability and versatility to the Naval test community at Pax River.”


Editor’s Note: According to Flight International, Saudi Arabia is a potential customer for the Scorpion.

Scott Donnelly, chief executive of parent company Textron, says Riyadh is one of a number of customers it is in talks with over the developmental aircraft.

The recent arms deal between the USA and Saudi Arabia includes $2 billion for “light close air support” aircraft. However, no details on the type or delivery dates have been disclosed.

Cautioning that its talks with Riyadh are at an “early” stage, Donnelly, speaking on a second-quarter results call, added: “There are certainly a number of things that we are looking at, but we think that now the performance envelope, the capability of what Scorpion can do makes it a very viable product for their requirements. But it’s still in its formative stages, I would say.”

Scorpion, along with the Beechcraft AT-6 and Embraer/Sierra Nevada A-29, will participate in a test campaign for the US Air Force in August as the service evaluates the potential purchase of a light attack aircraft under its OA-X initiative.

Although there is no programme of record for the requirement, Donnelly believes there is sufficient support from senior USAF leaders to merit the experimentation phase.

“I think the air force is being pragmatic about the fact that they need to execute the experimentation programme, understand what the capability is of the platforms that they are looking at and then take their next step, whatever that might be.”

Textron displayed a prototype of the Scorpion, powered by twin Honeywell TFE731 engines, at the recent Paris air show and Royal International Air Tattoo in the UK.

Donnelly says talks with prospective customers continue, but acknowledges that some will be waiting for the outcome of the OA-X effort.