Cessna Builds a Fighter

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The moment I saw the conceptual art on Cessnas 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 dont 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. Thecountries with money-Brazil, Russia, India and China-have their own emerging domestic aircraft industries and if light, cheap and unsophisticated is the selling point, couldnt 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 doesnt that describe the $4-million-a-pop Predator UAV, not to mention the next generation of drones we dont 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-thats 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 its 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 doesnt distract it further from interest in the lowly piston airplane, something thats fallen to a record low ebb.

But theres one good reason to cheer for the success of this project. If it puts more of Wichita back to work, thats a good thing.

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