When commercial aircraft product launches are stage-managed with a careful unveiling of ­billions of dollars worth of orders from a few hand-picked customers, the sight of a new military aircraft propelled into development with no announced buyers can come across as a rarity bordering on reckless.

Selling military aircraft is already a hard business, subject to feckless stewards in the acquisition offices, unreliable support in the political class and shifting ­requirements from an, often exclusive, primary customer. But at least the development cost is usually paid by the taxpayer, freeing the contractor from the risk of a wholly profitless venture. Remove that development subsidy and the whole business looks unfriendly to all but high-stakes gamblers.

Into this marketing maelstrom in 2013 was thrown the Textron AirLand Scorpion, a twin-engined fighter with three plausible military missions: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; light attack; and advanced jet training.

Scorpion - Textron AirLand

Textron AirLand

Three years into the project, the Scorpion demonstrator has yet to find a launch customer. It is not the world’s only self-funded development project. In South Africa, Paramount is developing the turboprop-­powered AHRLAC for a similar role, with perhaps even dimmer prospects of a launch order on the way from the cash-strapped government in Pretoria.

Historically, for every visionary gamble – Abe ­Karem’s unmanned Predator comes to mind – there are many more expensive flops, such as the worthy-yet-unloved Northrop F-20 fighter. In which basket will the ­Scorpion ultimately fall? A production-conforming prototype, possibly ready in time for the ­Farnborough air show, will no doubt soon settle the matter.

Textron AirLand’s sales pitch is at least timely and truthful. Where modern fighters carry awesome sensors and weapons at eye-watering prices, the Scorpion offers similar capabilities and even a trainer on a comparatively cheap platform, albeit one that can only ­operate with minimal risk of attack from ground or air.

Maybe Textron AirLand need not even make a sale to deem the Scorpion a success. Assembling the airframe has given joint venture partner Textron Aviation hands-on experience in all-composite jets, which may one day boost its Cessna and Beechcraft ranges.

But Textron AirLand is a determined champion. At Farnborough and other events later this year, Scorpion will receive a fair hearing – and let the chips in this high-stakes game fall where they may.

Source: Flight International