In a world dominated by $100 million military airplanes, "affordability" is the new frontier.
For much of 2011, all of 2012, and the early part of 2013 as well, America's Beechcraft and Brazilian planemaker Embraer (NYSE:ERJ) fought a running battle for the right to build 20 low-end fighter planes for the Afghan Air Force -- despite the fact that the planes cost just a few million dollars apiece.
That contest finally ended this year, with Embraer winning the contract. No sooner did that saga end, though, than just this month, another major military contractor -- Textron (NYSE:TXT) this time, best known for building armored vehicles, attack helicopters, and (with Boeing (NYSE:BA)) the tiltrotor V-22 Osprey -- is working up a new econobox fighter jet of its own.
Textron's plane, dubbed the Textron AirLand "Scorpion," could serve as both an ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) vehicle, and also undertake ground attack and air-to-air missions. Powered by twin turbofan engines beneath a 47-foot wingspan, the Scorpion will be able to fly at more than two-thirds the speed of sound (450 knots), and at altitudes up to 45,000 feet. It could carry 3,000 lbs. worth of ordnance in an internal weapons bay, plus additional weapons mounted on its wings.
At yet, for all the technical details that Textron has revealed about its new plane, the company's been very coy about one thing: The price.
Based on the little information available, and some number crunching on similar warplanes, here is a little slideshow that I've put together, showing where Scorpion might place on the scale of international fighter planes, and how much they cost. Take a look, then tune back in below to see how I arrive at the comparison.
What we know
Textron says Scorpion will cost about $3,000 per flight hour to operate. The price of the plane itself, the company says, will be "multiple times lower [to buy and fly] than most of the best-known, modern twin-jet strike aircraft." But what does this mean?
For now, Textron is making us guess -- but we can at least educate our guesses. According to the Comptroller of the Department of Defense , it costs about $18,000 an hour to fly an Air Force F-15 or F-22 fighter jet. That's about six times the projected flying cost of the Scorpion. If we assume the cost to buy a Scorpion will be a similar fraction of the price of a modern fighter jet, this implies a sales price of roughly $17 million to perhaps $25 million for the Scorpion.
As I think you'll agree, Textron appears to be underpricing its competition significantly here in the U.S. -- and maybe even giving its international rivals a run for their money.