Affordable $20 million fighter planes

The Textron Scorpion costs $20 million, still not exactly a bargain by most people’s standards, but a fifth of the cost of the F-35. It suggests that not every advanced defence project has to necessarily come in years late and billions over budget – and points to a new twist in not only the future of fighter-jet design, but also in more humanitarian roles that a budget jet could carry out.

Textron aren’t the only ones creating the tech to address this issue. The single jet fighter JF-17 is a Chinese design, currently being built in collaboration with its sole export customer, Pakistan, and is said to be available for around the same per-plane price of US$20m. Meanwhile, a Russian design, the Yak-130, has also been touted as a low-cost plane to carry out everything from air combat to reconnaissance, as well as train pilots.

The Scorpion took only two years to go from concept to its first flight (Textron)

Textron describes Scorpion as a modern “surveillance and strike” aircraft boasting:

* twin turbofan engines, producing 8,000 lbs. of combined thrust
* a 45,000-foot top altitude
* a top speed of 520 mph
* six hard points for carrying weapons on its wings (6,200 lbs. capacity)
* room for 3,000 lbs. more payload in an internal weapons bay

a flyaway cost of less than $20 million — and an hourly operations cost of about $3,000

Relative to the A-10 Warthog, Textron’s Scorpion has about half as much engine power — but also half the weight. The aircraft’s range is roughly equal to the A-10’s, but the Scorpion is a better “sprinter,” featuring both a faster maximum speed and a slower “stall speed” — important for flying low-and-slow on ground support missions.

The Scorpion doesn’t carry an integrated 30 mm cannon (like the A-10), its modular design permits it to carry one or even two cannon “pods” on its wings, to provide a strafing ability when there’s a need to get up close and personal.

Citing research from DARPA, Anderson notes that, in decades past, it was possible to design and build a new fighter jet in five to 10 years. These days, it takes closer to 20 years to bring a new concept to market. Thus, technology that was cutting-edge when the Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II were first envisioned, for example, is now already becoming obsolete — just as the planes are starting to fly.

To address this problem, Textron built Scorpion with off-the-shelf parts — taking fully vetted “mature high technology” that is already available, and assembling it into a jet that’s modern today — and can be upgraded as technology advances tomorrow. This permitted an exceptionally fast turnaround time in developing the plane. As Anderson describes it, “From the time we got the ‘go’ signal, from a clean slate, it took 23 months for Scorpion to take its first test flight.”

There are three main classes of potential customers for planes like the Scorpion, which has a top speed of around 520mph. The first are air forces who want a small jet aircraft capable of carrying out a range of strike and intelligence-gathering missions, and who have either never flown combat jets before or are looking to replace older aircraft. The second are countries who already have, or are developing, high-end fighter forces, but who might buy fewer of the more expensive jets to obtain a larger number of cheaper aircraft. The third are the major military powers who will need the advanced jets for simpler missions in low-risk environments.

The Chinese JF-17 is a supersonic fighter plane with a price tag the same as the slower Scorpion (AFP/Getty Images)