Cessna Builds a Fighter

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The moment I saw the conceptual art on Cessna’s new proposed twin-engine jet tactical aircraft—the Scorpion--three questions came immediately to mind. Is that thing stealthy? Can it be pilot optional? And last, huh? The answer to the first two questions might be mooted by the answer to the third: Since the Pentagon biting on this idea is a long shot, foreign sales may be what Cessna has in mind, along with its partner developmental company, AirLand Enterprises.

This is the sort of project you don’t see much anymore, given the cost escalation and vast profit margins in modern weapons systems and the R&D dollars it takes to create them. The Pentagon has not asked for such an airplane, so if Cessna wants U.S. sales, it will be cold calling. Sales in the emerging world may be a different matter, however. The defense export business has proven profitable for many U.S. manufacturers. Still, things are a little different now. The countries with money—Brazil, Russia, India and China—have their own emerging domestic aircraft industries and if light, cheap and unsophisticated is the selling point, couldn’t those countries roll their own and export the results? Cessna may be aiming to find out.

What the Scorpion is supposed to be is a cheap-to-operate, built-from-the-parts-bin reconnaissance and surveillance platform with some strike capability. But doesn’t that describe the $4-million-a-pop Predator UAV, not to mention the next generation of drones we don’t even know about? Is there really a need for a five-hour endurance jet to fly missions that UAVs are already doing? 

With budget cuts looming, perhaps Cessna and AirLand are counting on the Pentagon getting religion on less expensive—that’s not the same as cheap—weapons systems. Then again, when has it ever, at least recently? I suspect Cessna will need lots of friends in Congress to overcome the legions of supporters that Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have cultivated over the years. Although it’s sometimes forgotten, Cessna is no stranger to military aircraft. But its experience with the venerable A-37 Dragonfly, a Vietnam workhorse, is decades old. Textron (partnered with Boeing) does have military contracts in the V-22 Osprey and various subsystems. But Cessna was never in the league of a Lockheed, Grumman or McDonnell Douglas in the military realm. Perhaps that's a market advantage. Plying the competitive civil market for so many years, Cessna has had to be efficient and fast moving, bringing products to market on time and on budget, something not normally associated with military contractors. The F-35 comes to mind. In stepping out of the civil jet realm, Cessna is stretching. I hope it doesn’t distract it further from interest in the lowly piston airplane, something that’s fallen to a record low ebb.

But there’s one good reason to cheer for the success of this project. If it puts more of Wichita back to work, that’s a good thing.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (11)

In 16 Sept. Aviation Week, pp. 22-23, is an article describing a Textron light fighter named Scorpion. What's the differencebetw/ that and the Scorpion described in this article? Same-same?

Posted by: Robert Gmyrek | September 18, 2013 7:05 AM    Report this comment

stealthy may not be a requirment if intended use is domestic.

Posted by: jim wagner | September 18, 2013 7:40 AM    Report this comment

I don't know about the US, but I can see a good market for many countries that wisely hide their much more expensive planes as soon as there is a threat from a superior Air Force. Besides, the supply of used fighters isn't what it used to be since the modern airframes on many are more or less disposable. Add in the cost of training and maintaining as well as a need to clear out drones and it looks like a good idea. I haven't caught the entry price though.

Posted by: Eric Warren | September 18, 2013 9:42 AM    Report this comment

Might be a good border patrol aircraft. Places like Europe and Australia coffee to mind. I do wonder if the move to drones might not be as certain as some people think. They don't have a good reputation in some quarters. As an aside, the design looks kind of wrong, as if the centre of lift is too far forward. Unless the engines are under the wing with really long exhaust pipes?

Posted by: John Hogan | September 18, 2013 1:46 PM    Report this comment

In 1974 the BAE Systems Hawk (see this title on Wikipedia) first flew. Hawk is the US Navy's T-45 Goshawk.

Like the Cessna aircraft, it was a private venture product where the designers (then Hawker Aircraft) knew better than their military customers what those customers wanted.

The good news for Cessna is that a sensible design, built for efficiency and produced to time and budget, will sell the best part of 1000 airframes.

The bad news for Cessna is that Hawk has evolved in response to customer requirements and is still being built today.

Posted by: R L S Butler | September 18, 2013 7:53 PM    Report this comment

Does it come with a G300+ Suite for special pilots transitioning from the C162 Crater-Catcher? If it comes with a parachute and DCAS (Drone Collision Avoidance System) and something that makes funny shooting sounds when you push the red button I definitely want one! Is a transition course and loyalty program offered for C162 owners? How many seats does it have? Do I need a medical to fly it? Will they take a credit card for the deposit? Does purchase include induction in the Rotary Club? Can it perform a Jack Roush arrival bounce and bang procedure while the pilot is slapping the secretary on the bum? Special (free) parking at AOPA Summit? 2 Year 25000 mile service plan is standard? Questions over questions.... where do I get a brochure?

Posted by: Jason Baker | September 18, 2013 8:12 PM    Report this comment

An old military adage says there are two kinds of aircraft: fighters and targets.

This Cessna looks like a target. ☹

Posted by: Phil Derosier | September 18, 2013 9:42 PM    Report this comment

Sure looks like a possible T-38 replacement to me. Might have to shorten and sweep the wing a bit though.

Posted by: Don Colbath | September 19, 2013 8:49 AM    Report this comment

Don't forget Cessna's other dabblings in the military world; the venerable L-19 and O-2 saw a lot of service in Korea and VN in addition to the A-37. And the SkySmacker may yet make a good artillery target :-)

AT least it's not built in China...yet.

Posted by: A Richie | September 19, 2013 9:14 AM    Report this comment

The histories of training and light attack aircraft are littered with dozens of forgotten wannabes. In the end, back room politics always play a much larger role than design features, performance, or price; and the politics almost never favor the new guy, or even the best airplane (however "best" may be defined). Consequently, this Scorpion program is a desperate long shot; and the curiously nameless ex-DOD folks at the curiously named "AirLand" have a steep and expensive uphill battle to overcome the powerful corporate, political, and national/international interests already arrayed worldwide to sell other weapons systems and training aircraft. It is an exacting, difficult, and risky venture to compete to sell an airplane to a known customer for a defined mission; but, trying to sell one to some unknown customer somewhere who might need something like this - well, I've never seen it succeed. But, investors in blue sky airplanes have enormous appetites for their own bathwater. It may be that Textron has some loose cash to fund this fishing expedition, but its earnings and dividends certainly don't reflect it. What CEO Donnelly and AirLand don't appear to understand is that military procurement organizations have enormous budget and career investments in aligning or assuaging all the competing interests and requirements of powerful politicians, government bureaucrats and technocrats, various military commands, and the corporations who will eventually make and support an airplane. The Scorpion isn't on any of their agendas, and will be viewed mostly as a meddling nuisance. There certainly is no public information that points to the viability of this Scorpion venture; so, the people at AirLand and Textron must believe they have some unique and valuable insider assurances for success. That seems remarkably naive. Seasoned observers of large procurement programs understand that any promises given to a company, whether by government grandees or minions, are likely to be sacrificed to political expediency every time. Dwayne Wallace learned this on the C-12 competition in 1974, when Congress overturned a liaison aircraft contract that Cessna won by refusing to allow the Army to buy jets; and Russ Meyer learned it on the JPATS competition in 1995, when the Secretary of the Air Force assured him that the competition would be won on value - not price - so, of course, it was won on price. Donnelly is about to learn something similarly expensive -- that a military airplane prototype without a committed customer is a waste of scarce company resources.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | September 22, 2013 4:31 PM    Report this comment

The histories of training and light attack aircraft are littered with dozens of forgotten wannabes. In the end, back room politics always play a much larger role than design features, performance, or price; and the politics almost never favor the new guy, or even the best airplane (however "best" may be defined). Consequently, this Scorpion program is a desperate long shot; and the curiously nameless ex-DOD folks at the curiously named "AirLand" have a steep and expensive uphill battle to overcome the powerful corporate, political, and national/international interests already arrayed worldwide to sell other weapons systems and training aircraft.

It is an exacting, difficult, and risky venture to compete to sell an airplane to a known customer for a defined mission; but, trying to sell one to some unknown customer somewhere who might need something like this - well, I've never seen it succeed. But, investors in blue sky airplanes have enormous appetites for their own bathwater. It may be that Textron has some loose cash to fund this fishing expedition, but its earnings and dividends certainly don't reflect it.

What CEO Donnelly and AirLand don't appear to understand is that military procurement organizations have enormous budget and career investments in aligning or assuaging all the competing interests and requirements of powerful politicians, government bureaucrats and technocrats, various military commands, and the corporations who will eventually make and support an airplane. The Scorpion isn't on any of their agendas, and will be viewed mostly as an unwelcome nuisance.

There certainly is no public information that points to the viability of this Scorpion venture; so, the people at AirLand and Textron must believe they have some unique and valuable insider assurances for success. That seems remarkably naive. Seasoned observers of large procurement programs understand that any promises given to a company, whether by government grandees or minions, are likely to be sacrificed to political expediency every time. Dwayne Wallace learned this on the C-12 competition in 1974, when Congress overturned a liaison aircraft contract that Cessna won by refusing to allow the Army to buy jets; and Russ Meyer learned it on the JPATS competition in 1995, when the Secretary of the Air Force assured him that the competition would be won on value - not price - so, of course, it was won on price. Donnelly is about to learn something similarly expensive -- that a military airplane prototype without a committed customer is a waste of scarce company resources.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | September 22, 2013 4:35 PM    Report this comment

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