After more than four decades in service, the A-10 Warthog is due for a replacement. So says the U.S. Air Combat Command.
What's more, ACC says it's already "thinking about" fielding such a replacement. But what might that replacement be?
Last week, we got a clue. As reported by Reuters, the Air Force has recently begun evaluating Textron's (TXT -1.70%) Scorpion fighter jet as a potential 21st-century replacement for the 20th-century Warthog.
Quoting Air Force Gen. Herbert Carlisle, head of ACC, Reuters reports that the Air Force has done "some research" on Textron's new budget-priced Scorpion. And Carlisle thinks the plane just might be what the Air Force needs to perform close-air support in "contested environments" that could prove lethal to the A-10.
But what exactly is Scorpion, and how does it stack up against the A-10 Thunderbolt Warthog?
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.
Of course, the biggest difference between Scorpion and the A-10 Warthog is the absence of a "big gun" -- specifically, the 30 mm GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon that is both the A-10's primary weapon and its defining feature. Designed to kill Soviet tanks in a circa-1980s Cold War confrontation -- and actually used to destroy nearly 900 Soviet-vintage Iraqi tanks in the 1990s Gulf War I -- the A-10's big gun is notably absent from Textron's Scorpion.
But can Scorpion replace the A-10 Warthog without it?
Scorpion's biggest fan
Bill Anderson, president of Textron AirLand, thinks so. In a recent phone conversation, Anderson pointed out that Textron originally developed Scorpion to perform a "Multi Mission, ISR/strike platform" role. It thus was not designed to duplicate the A-10's mission; it prefers using precision weapons to attack ground targets from a safe distance out of range of enemy defenses.
That fact addresses the Air Force's concerns about the A-10 Warthog's survivability. And flying high and fast, Scorpion might be a good candidate to take over the A-10's role in some threat environments.
As Anderson explains it, "two abilities are critical" for any aircraft performing close-air support: "The ability to communicate with ground forces, and the ability to find and fix a target." Anderson argues that "Scorpion is very good in both these roles, and can loiter up to five hours," providing ground support as needed through its suite of high-tech, standoff weapons. What's more, while the aircraft doesn't carry an integrated 30 mm cannon, 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.
A budget-priced fighter jet for tight fiscal times
Most crucially, Textron's Scorpion is both cheap to buy and cheap to fly, and designed to permit easy upgrades over time. This addresses the big problem with modern fighter jets, in that they cost a fortune, take forever to develop, and by the time they're introduced, they're often stuck using out-of-date technology.
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."
An attractive proposition
As a result, the Scorpion is nearly as cheap to buy as it is to fly. Extrapolating from historical U.S. Air Force data, the current-day cost of a new A-10 would be approximately $18.6 million -- roughly equal to Scorpion's price tag. Theoretically, at least, the Air Force could swap its entire fleet of old A-10s for shiny new Scorpions at a cost of less than $6 billion. (And incidentally, that would be worth about 40% of a year's revenues to Textron.)
They might even be tempted to make such a switch. Air Force figures show that, per flight hour, it costs $17,716 to operate an A-10 Warthog -- whereas Textron says Scorpion will cost just one-sixth of that, giving the Air Force a much reduced operating cost.
Granted, for die-hard supporters of the A-10 Warthog -- and they are legion -- anything less than a full-fledged A-10 probably isn't going to cut it as a replacement for the aging warbird. But for a U.S. Air Force that's increasingly strapped for cash, with much of its budget tied up buying high-end F-35 fighter jets, Textron's Scorpion seems to offer a way to perform low-tech, low-and-slow close-air support on a budget.
Now all Textron has to do is convince the Air Force to buy it.