Wednesday, 9 April 2014


The Textron AirLand Scorpion Jet has been the subject of a great deal of speculation and commentary since the company unveiled its new product. A common theme has been the absence of an identifiable market for the Scorpion.

There are few observers more knowledgeable, or prescient, then Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group who has been quoted as saying that; “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 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.”

He also notes that:” 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”

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.

Of course Aboulafia’s observations are intended for the United States and do not necessarily apply to other countries. For example, the U.S. Air Force is the only operator of the A-10, Canada has no such aircraft, and while the statement “Close-air support is not a pressing requirement for the service” may be true when applied to the USAF it is does not axiomatically apply to the RCAF. If Canada did wish to acquire a greater close air support capability then even procuring used A-10s would have an impact on the procurement budget and cost more to operate then the Scorpion.

Similarly, the U.S. Air Force may possess a good small ISR (intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance) platform, in the MC-12W/Beechcraft King, but once again, Canada does not. It has been suggested that Canada could acquire some of these aircraft as the U.S, retires them, but again there would be a procurement cost. It should also be noted that, unlike the Scorpion, the MC-12W does not possess a strike capability.

While it is true that the Scorpion might not be suitable to intercept high performance aircraft, modern airspace is filled with a plethora of targets, such as light aircraft, helicopters, and drones that are not suited to management by fifth generation fighters. In fact, in the case of some ‘low and slow’ bogies, ‘fifth generation’ jets may not even be capable of conducting air policing missions. 

It is true that the market for light strike fighters has declined, but what is also true is the lack of new platforms to fill the role. As Aboulafia points out there is a disconnect between the light-strike and advanced trainer roles. Many Air Forces are left with a choice between new build fighters and second hand F-16’s, neither of which may be affordable or suitable. In short it is not the lack of a mission but rather the lack of a suitable aircraft to fill the mission which has lead to the “collapse”.

The same holds true for his other objection, the disappearing market for attack jets. Very few of the kind of aircraft previously used in these roles are being marketed today which may have more to do with its disappearance then a lack of need. In truth Canada did not “trade-up” to more capable aircraft when we divested ourselves of the CF-5. The CF-5s were procured to fill a perceived lack of tactical air power and retired to help pay the running costs of the CF-18’s, which did not exactly replace them.

Textron Chief Executive Scott Donnelly is reported as saying that he is confident a global market exists for small, cheap-to-run jets able to carry out intelligence, security and reconnaissance work for the military as well as functions like patrolling borders and tracking drug smugglers. "There was a need out there not being satisfied," he said.

Textron has estimated the size of the global market at more than 2,000 aircraft and says the company could start to deliver them in 2015 if it wins an order this year. The Scorpion is priced below $20 million, and aims to have lower operating costs than those of pricier jets flying similar missions. That will position it between slower turboprops such as Embraer's $11 million Super Tucano and advanced supersonic combat fighter jets like Saabs $43 million Gripen, and offerings from Lockheed Martin, Boeing Co. and others costing $50 million or more.

Defense Industry Daily has observed that “Military discussion in Canada has been almost non-existent, beyond hand-waving and the grossest generalizations. The strategic requirement for new fighters, and whether the choices available can do those jobs at acceptable cost, doesn’t much concern Canada’s governing class. To date Canada’s military, governments, and media have all diligently avoided a strategic discussion that could separate, evaluate, and prioritize spending options. Instead, the debate has revolved around economic concerns, and the military’s wants”

Canadian Defence Matters is definitely not recommending the Textron AirLand Scorpion to replace the CF-18 in Canadian service. The argument here is that which ever aircraft is chosen to fill that role, given the inevitable costs, will form a relatively small and precious fleet that will need to be augmented if Canada is to have a truly useful Airforce. It is not just about appropriate technology; it is about creating appropriate organizations. The Scorpion is an aircraft that, if properly used, could re-create the Air Force Reserve as well as bringing much needed capabilities at an affordable cost. 

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