Textron’s CEO Scott Donnelly told investors that the company is in preliminary talks with Saudi Arabia for the sale of Scorpion light combat aircraft. Flight Global reported that the information was disclosed during Textron’s second-quarter results call with shareholders.
The procurement of “light close air support” (CAS) aircraft was among the armaments Riyadh intended to procure from the U.S. as part of its $110 billion U.S. weapons deal with Washington.
Textron has sent the Scorpion to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico to support the U.S. Air Force’s capability and feasibility tests (beginning from July 31). The results will help the Air Force decide whether to proceed with or shelve the OA-X, which is to be a counterinsurgency (COIN)-focused CAS platform.
First flown in 2013, the Textron AirLand Scorpion is a lightweight twin-engine combat aircraft designed to assume training, CAS and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
The Scorpion uses two Honeywell TFE731 turbofan engines, which provide the Scorpion a maximum speed of 833 km/h and ferry range of 2,963 km. It has a payload of 4,200 kg, of which 1,400 kg is internal (and the remainder available through six external hardpoints).
Textron has built comprehensive portfolio of CAS-capable systems. Besides the Scorpion, Textron (via its numerous divisions) also offers the Bell Helicopter AH-1Z Viper, AT-6 Wolverine and Nightwarden tactical drone. The company even offers its own munitions, namely G-CLAW and Fury air-to-ground missiles.
Notes & Comments:
Of the aircraft participating in the OA-X program, the Scorpion is the only jet-powered aircraft. While the Scorpion costlier to fly per hour than its turboprop-powered competitors, it can fly faster, higher and with more munitions. Its internal bay also provides with unique configuration options for ISR.
The Honeywell TFE731 turbofan engine is also a mature and ubiquitous design, boasting a production run of over 11,000 and providing competitive operational and maintenance costs. Thus, the Scorpion would still be cheaper to fly than sophisticated multi-role fighters, yet retain several of their advantages, such as compatibility with stand-off range air-to-surface munitions (with substantive loads). In fact, the Scorpion even has a payload capacity that is on-par with larger multi-role fighters.
With some officials concerned that CAS-focused COIN platforms may come across anti-air warfare (AAW) threats eventually, some may view the Scorpion as the path future COIN platforms ought to take. Granted, this idea would also have to stand against the evolution of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs, notably attritable concepts such as the XQ-222 Valkyrie and the time it will take for those to be sufficiently capable and affordable enough to negate any need for manned fixed-wing CAS platforms.
Saudi Arabia’s apparent interest in the Scorpion may refer to a presumed requirement for an entry-tier fighter to re-assume the role left by the Royal Saudi Air Force’s (RSAF) retired Northrop F-5 Tiger II. Unlike the Eagle or Typhoon, the F-5 was the RSAF’s primary point-defence fighter. Saudi Arabia had reportedly even expressed interest in the JF-17 Thunder in late 2016, indicating that a lightweight jet was sought.
It is possible, if not likely, that Riyadh’s interest in the Scorpion is in reference to the same requirements that had apparently driven it to inquire about the Thunder. Although talks are in the early stages (but not too early for disclosure to Textron shareholders), compatibility and interoperability with the RSAF’s inventory of U.S. munitions will be factors in its final decision.