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Textron Aviation’s Scorpion armed reconnaissance jet is unique. There is no other tactical aircraft like it in the world, and that is why Textron developed it. After conducting a detailed market survey at the beginning of the decade, the Providence, RI-based technology company concluded there was potential demand for 2,000 low-cost, multi-mission military jets around the world that nobody in the aerospace industry was addressing. So Textron decided to use its own money to develop such a plane.

That isn’t the way military aircraft typically get developed. The usual pattern is to find a government sponsor that will pay most of the cost of development and then become the first user. But Textron (a contributor to my think tank) wanted a plane that it could build in America and then easily export to dozens of countries, so it not only used internal funds to develop Scorpion, but avoided adopting U.S. military specifications that might impede the export process.

Instead, the plane’s on-board gear consists of the kind of commercial technology made by companies like Garmin that Textron uses on its Cessna and Beechcraft business jets. That not only makes exporting Scorpion to diverse overseas customers easier, but it greatly reduces the cost of buying the plane. At $20 million for a baseline design, Scorpion costs less than a quarter of what an F-16 fighter sells for today. And because the company provides contractor logistics support once fielded, the cost of operating the plane is about an eighth of what an F-16 would cost.

Textron Aviation’s Scorpion is unrivaled for the simple reason that nobody makes a plane like it. The company thinks there’s a potential market for 2,000 Scorpions that has not been served in the past.

Of course, Scorpion can’t do all the things a fully loaded F-16 could, but that’s the point. There are plenty of countries around the world that use their military aircraft for border patrol, maritime security, drug interdiction, disaster relief and counter-insurgency warfare rather than conducting air-to-air combat or penetrating strike missions. Many of those countries can’t afford an F-16, much less a stealthy F-35, but they still have security needs that are compatible with U.S. interests.

So the challenge Textron faced was designing an affordable plane that could still perform a diverse array of missions. What it came up with was a twin-engine jet (engines made by Honeywell) focused first of all on conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, and secondarily on performing strike missions against surface targets. There would be a standard configuration capable of carrying over 9,000 pounds of stores — sensors, missiles, etc. — but the emphasis was on flexibility so that the configuration of the plane could be tailored to the specific needs of each customer.

For example, a country in Southeast Asia might be concerned mainly with maritime security, while a country in North Africa might be more concerned with border protection or counter-terrorism. Scorpion’s modular design and federated electronics architecture can be readily adapted to either set of requirements. And with contractor logistics support, the planes can be kept in a high state of readiness at minimal cost. Textron Aviation’s commercial logistics system delivers parts anywhere they are needed worldwide in 24 hours.

What makes this approach to tactical aircraft design and sustainment so disruptive is that by relying entirely on commercial systems and suppliers, Textron Aviation can put agile air power in the hands of countries that could not otherwise afford it. Although Scorpion is only half the size of the U.S. Air Force’s venerable A-10 attack plane, it flies faster (500 mph) and higher (45,000 feet). Its composite-materials structure is more durable, and its modular layout can be upgraded much faster than planes like the A-10.

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Textron Aviation’s Scorpion armed reconnaissance jet is unique. There is no other tactical aircraft like it in the world, and that is why Textron developed it. After conducting a detailed market survey at the beginning of the decade, the Providence, RI-based technology company concluded there was potential demand for 2,000 low-cost, multi-mission military jets around the world that nobody in the aerospace industry was addressing. So Textron decided to use its own money to develop such a plane.

That isn’t the way military aircraft typically get developed. The usual pattern is to find a government sponsor that will pay most of the cost of development and then become the first user. But Textron (a contributor to my think tank) wanted a plane that it could build in America and then easily export to dozens of countries, so it not only used internal funds to develop Scorpion, but avoided adopting U.S. military specifications that might impede the export process.

Instead, the plane’s on-board gear consists of the kind of commercial technology made by companies like Garmin that Textron uses on its Cessna and Beechcraft business jets. That not only makes exporting Scorpion to diverse overseas customers easier, but it greatly reduces the cost of buying the plane. At $20 million for a baseline design, Scorpion costs less than a quarter of what an F-16 fighter sells for today. And because the company provides contractor logistics support once fielded, the cost of operating the plane is about an eighth of what an F-16 would cost.

Textron Aviation’s Scorpion is unrivaled for the simple reason that nobody makes a plane like it. The company thinks there’s a potential market for 2,000 Scorpions that has not been served in the past.

Of course, Scorpion can’t do all the things a fully loaded F-16 could, but that’s the point. There are plenty of countries around the world that use their military aircraft for border patrol, maritime security, drug interdiction, disaster relief and counter-insurgency warfare rather than conducting air-to-air combat or penetrating strike missions. Many of those countries can’t afford an F-16, much less a stealthy F-35, but they still have security needs that are compatible with U.S. interests.

So the challenge Textron faced was designing an affordable plane that could still perform a diverse array of missions. What it came up with was a twin-engine jet (engines made by Honeywell) focused first of all on conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, and secondarily on performing strike missions against surface targets. There would be a standard configuration capable of carrying over 9,000 pounds of stores — sensors, missiles, etc. — but the emphasis was on flexibility so that the configuration of the plane could be tailored to the specific needs of each customer.

For example, a country in Southeast Asia might be concerned mainly with maritime security, while a country in North Africa might be more concerned with border protection or counter-terrorism. Scorpion’s modular design and federated electronics architecture can be readily adapted to either set of requirements. And with contractor logistics support, the planes can be kept in a high state of readiness at minimal cost. Textron Aviation’s commercial logistics system delivers parts anywhere they are needed worldwide in 24 hours.

What makes this approach to tactical aircraft design and sustainment so disruptive is that by relying entirely on commercial systems and suppliers, Textron Aviation can put agile air power in the hands of countries that could not otherwise afford it. Although Scorpion is only half the size of the U.S. Air Force’s venerable A-10 attack plane, it flies faster (500 mph) and higher (45,000 feet). Its composite-materials structure is more durable, and its modular layout can be upgraded much faster than planes like the A-10.

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