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Scorpion: Cessna unveils its prototype light military jet

Textron, with a big hand from subsidiary Cessna Aircraft, on Monday unveiled the prototype of its first modern military jet, the Scorpion, a light jet for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and attack.

The Scorpion is being built by a new Textron division, Textron AirLand, a joint venture with AirLand Enterprises. It was introduced at the Air Force Association Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition in National Harbor, Md.

The prototype was designed from scratch and built at Cessna in Wichita, Kan., in secrecy, beginning in early 2012, company officials said Monday.

Its first flight is scheduled for this year, and low-volume production is slated for 2015. Testing and early production will be done in Wichita, said Textron spokesman Dave Sylvestre. Beyond that, he said, it remains to be seen.

“We began development of the Scorpion in January 2012 with the objective to design, build and fly the world’s most affordable tactical jet aircraft capable of performing lower-threat battlefield and homeland security missions,” Textron chairman and CEO Scott Donnelly said in a statement. “We relied on commercial best practices to develop a tactical jet platform with flexibility and capabilities found only in far more costly aircraft.”

The Scorpion is designed for a world of tight defense budgets, including the budget of the U.S. Department of Defense and those of U.S. allies. The company said it is well suited for the Air National Guard’s missions, such as irregular warfare, border patrol, maritime surveillance, emergency relief, counter-narcotics and air defense operations.

Sylvestre said the nearly all-composite plane borrows technology, but not the design, used in Citations business jets. It was built without government funds and the company didn’t go through the usual procurement process in which the military issues specifications and the companies compete for the project.

Sylvestre wouldn’t say how much the program cost.

Sylvestre said the market for the plan is potentially quite large: the U.S. Air Force, other branches of the military, Air National Guard and the military forces of allied nations.

“Based on the reaction that we’ve had from potential military customers, we think it’s got potentially high demand,” Sylvestre said.

It’s a much less expensive plane to buy and operate, Sylvestre said. The estimate is that it will cost $2,500 to $3,000 per hour to fly vs. $25,000 to $30,000 per hour for an F-35.

“What Textron realized, in conjunction with AirLand Enterprises, is that there was a potential major market for an aircraft that could fly a lot of homeland security missions, where there is a lower threat level, where you don’t need a high-end sophisticated fighter jet,” Sylvestre said. ”There isn’t an aircraft like it.”

As a light attack aircraft, the Scorpion will compete in the market against Embraer’s Super Tucano and Beechcraft’s AT-6 turboprops, said Ray Jaworowski, senior aerospace analyst for Forecast International.

“As a jet, the Scorpion will probably offer greater speed than the turboprops but, with many countries facing defense spending limitations, Textron will have to make sure that the Scorpion's operating costs are not significantly greater than its competitors,” Jaworowski wrote in an e-mail.

He said it’s unlikely that the U.S. military will buy the plane for its existing missions, but it could be popular internationally if it could serve also as a trainer.

And reconfiguring the plane as a trainer may be the key, Jaworowski said. Textron may be angling to make the Scorpion a contender in the coming fierce competition for the contract for at least 350 of the next generation of U.S. Air Force trainer to replace Northrop Grumman’s T-38.

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