It takes a gutsy move for a company to pitch a brand new, clean-sheet aircraft to the Pentagon for a set of requirements it has not even said it wants, and to present this idea while defense spending in the U.S. faces massive cuts.

But, that is exactly what a newly formed joint venture between Textron and a young company—AirLand Enterprises, formed in 2011—is doing. Textron is best known for its Cessna business jets and turboprops, as well as Bell Helicopter’s long experience with rotorcraft. Its partner, AirLand, however, was formed by a small group of investors, including retired defense officials, to explore a new concept for light attack.

It could actually be the scarce funding environment that validates the strategy behind the joint venture’s new aircraft—the two-seat, twin-engine Scorpion. The team is unveiling its self-funded project Sept. 16 at the annual Air Force Association Air & Space Conference outside Washington, and officials gave Aviation Week an exclusive sneak peak.

The Scorpion demonstrator is intended to whet the U.S. Air Force’s appetite with the promise of a low procurement and operating cost. The pitch is for this aircraft, which is optimized for 5-hr. endurance with onboard intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collectors and weapons, to handle the Air Force’s low-end missions such as U.S.-based interdiction, quick-reaction natural disaster support and air sovereignty patrols. The goal is to field an aircraft capable of operating for less than $3,000 per flying hour; the company declined to cite a target unit cost. By contrast, the Pentagon in June cited the cost per flying hour of the F-16, which currently performs many of these missions, as $24,899.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, F-15s, F-16s and A-10s have been used for patrols and close air support in completely uncontested airspace. This was overkill, according to some military officials. Built for high-speed, high-G maneuvers, these aircraft made little use of their strengths in these conflicts, but were needed to drop ordnance and provide armed overwatch for ground troops.

“The military is very focused right now on that very high-end” capability, says Textron CEO Scott Donnelly, noting the attention on developing and buying the F-35 as a replacement for most Air Force combat aircraft. “There is a market space right now… One of the challenges we have today in the Defense Department is we see budgets coming down [and] that is exactly why this is the right time to do this.”

Assuming Scorpion makes good on its operating-cost target, the system could have saved the Pentagon $1 billion a year in fuel alone, says F. Whitten Peters, Air Force secretary from 1999-2001. Peters, and other retired senior military officials, formed the AirLand Enterprises company and birthed the Scorpion concept several years ago. The project gained steam once they found a partner in Textron to build the aircraft starting in January 2012.

By Amy Butler
SOURCE: Aviation Week & Space Technology