Textron’s Scorpion wins on the economics. The politics need some attention.
Instead of attending the Paris Air Show this week, I found myself sitting on the couch the other night, watching Iron Man 2 with the kids. As Justin Hammer introduced his squadrons of nearly-identical killer robots (er, drones) for “the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines”, I thought about Textron’s Scorpion jet as a problem of inter-agency politics. (Bear with me.) Almost two years ago, Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week warned that “Textron had better be prepared to commit some serious time and money to this project” if the company hoped to develop the market. After last year’s Farnborough Air Show, I characterized that problem as one of “market categorization”. Plenty of smart people (like Richard Aboulafia, to start) don’t identify this plane in a separate product category, so they “don’t understand its mission, its performance relative to alternatives, or its economics..” I will try to help with that, because while Textron’s story is strong, political boundaries have clouded the case.
The Scorpion fills the a combination of missions as a light scout-bomber. Had this been a Boeing product, they might have called it the Dauntless II. It’s not supposed to be aerobatic or stealthy. It’s not a fighter. As Benjamin Fernandes might note, it’s not an attack aircraft, and hardly be a replacement for the A-10C. It’s not a penetrating bomber, obviously, but if that’s such a problem, then why is the USAF refurbishing and upgrading its B-52s? And like other jet-powered bombers, the Scorpion’s key differentiator in performance is its speed. It’s remarkably faster than turboprop alternatives. Embraer’s Super Tucano is a great attack aircraft, but it can’t range as far as quickly, in response to whatever trouble might develop.
Economics, though, is the key selling point. As Clay Dillow wrote for Fortune back in December, most countries in the fight need to fight Daesh or Boko Haram on a budget. The whole reason that the US Navy and the USMC’s Hornets are falling apart is that they’re been drilling holes in the skies for the past fourteen years, on what Private Hudson might have called the Big Bug Hunt. Those aircraft were built for stand-up fights against whatever near-peer competitor would emerge, so their big-war capabilities are wasted in small wars against people without air defenses. Now, as Textron AirLand President Bill Andersen told Defense News, “you can save your high-end fighters for what they were designed for.” With 3,000 pounds of internal payload, at just $3000 per flight hour, the Scorpion could be what General Carlisle recently called “more capacity at a lower cost”.
But what Textron is still trying to market is the inherent economy of the plane’s multivalent possibilities. Note how the plane is going to Britain for a series of aerial intercept exercises with the Royal Air Force, and maritime surveillance demonstrations for the Fleet Air Arm. Why the Royal Navy? Because after the debacle of the Nimrod MRA4, the Admiralty would love to pull that mission back from the RAF. Fitting a submarine-hunting payload into a twin-seater could be challenging, but with ongoing electronic miniaturization and software automation, it could also be worth a try. Moreover, a multi-engined patrol plane like Boeing P-8 or Kawasaki’s P-1 may just be overkill for wide-area surface search. Under air cover, that’s a solid big-war mission. And when they’re finished with that, swap out the payloads and maybe the back-seaters, and send them back into those small-war battles that just won’t go away. The war of the flea, after all, is won on attrition.
But if land-based scouting at sea might be a navy problem, land-based bombing on land seems to most clearly an air force problem. One approach has been to pitch the same airplane in different configurations to different services—that’s the Joint Strike Fighter idea. Taken too far, it’s the same flying thing in different liveries for the same purpose—that’s the Hammer drone silliness. Taken properly, novel ideas like the Scorpion can reinvigorate inter-service competition for roles and missions, but using the same planes. As I once argued about Boeing’s Poseidon, “if the P-8 can haul torpedoes and cruise missiles, it’s worth asking why it can’t haul JDAMs as well…Whether the Navy or the Air Force flies them is rather beyond the issue.” Economically combining missions in technically feasible ways just makes too much military sense. Politically, it’s a defense minister’s job to sort out the who-gets-what.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.