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We Have Flown in Textron’s Scorpion Jet. Here’s What We Have Learned.

The Scorpion is the iPhone X of Military Aviation.

To many, the Textron Aviation Defense LLC Scorpion is an enigma.

Though it has capability overlap, the Scorpion is not a traditional Fighter, Attack, Reconnaissance, Observation, or Trainer, nor is it designed to replace any existing platform. To understand it, one must look to the Scorpion as a ISR/Strike platform developed in the context of the smartphone business model.

The hardware platform – the Scorpion, could be likened to the 256 GB iPhone X (or equivalent Pixel 2/Samsung Note 8 if you prefer). The aircraft features a truly open mission architecture, with extraordinary internal/external payload capability. An Interface Control Document [ICD] is made available to payload suppliers who program their payloads to interface with the Scorpion mission system. The result is a very efficient hardware platform with a “sky’s the limit” applications/payloads store!

Textron focuses on providing the very low operating cost, flexible, and modular “flying platform” to readily host today and tomorrow’s most capable payloads. The approach is a complete break from the proprietary systems utilized by the prime contractors of current high-end fighters; controlled, slowed and priced by the prime.

Textron Scorpion with HMP-400 gun pods overflies NAS Patuxent River during recent weapons trials. The TEXTRON team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-400 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early. (Photo: Erik Hildebrandt)

I recently flew in one of the three production Scorpions, “P2” fresh off the USAF OA-X Experiment.

Textron Aviation Defense Flight Test and Demonstration Pilot Matt “Tajma” Hall (current Air National Guard C-130 Aircraft Commander; experienced pilot in the F-15E and T-6) provided flight briefing, and Chief Test Pilot Dan “Shaka” Hinson (Ret. USN F/A-18 Pilot, former Commanding Officer of the U.S. Naval Strike Fighter Weapons School, and Graduate of U.S. Naval Test Pilot School) piloted the aircraft. One cannot help but note the tremendous quality and experience in the team that Textron has assembled to not only fly and prove the aircraft, but to provide the intellectual capital behind design and capability.

Testron Scorpion “P2” just off the USAF OA-X Experiment readies for flight from Manassas, VA. (All photos: Author unless otherwise stated).

Departing on an IFR flight plan in low overcast from the Manassas Regional Airport, Virginia, we quickly climbed to 5,000 ft and headed southwest where the skies were clearing. The rapid departure and climb made it clear we were under jet power. Within minutes we were in suitable VFR conditions over Charlottesville, Virginia and ATC provided a block of airspace for maneuvering. Over the next 60 minutes, Hinson demonstrated the flight characteristics, sensors and weapons systems.

Under his watchful eye, Hinson had me take control of the aircraft executing turns, pulling Gs, evaluating high speed handling, speed brake deployment, an aileron roll, multiple stalls and stall recoveries. The Scorpion is an incredibly stable and “pilot friendly” aircraft. Engines at idle, flaps up, stick back, and nose high – and the aircraft would not stall. When parameters were established to create a stall, recovery was straightforward. The aircraft is slippery and a slight drop in the nose leads to a “with this kind of nose attitude the aircraft really accelerates a lot…” from Hinson. The man is a real professional, a gentleman’s way of saying, “pull the nose up.” I did.

The author, Todd Miller taking a selfie in the Textron Aviation Defense Scorpion Jet over Virgina, USA. Capable, scalable ISR/Light Attack for the uncontested space.

The wing provides a tremendous glide ratio, ideal for the aircraft’s purpose – ISR in a permissive environment. On station at about 12,000 ft the total fuel burn was only 500 – 600 lbs per engine, per hour. This enables tremendous time on station with a variety of weapons at the ready to neutralize a target of opportunity. For comparison sake, the fuel burn per hour on station is about 10 – 12% of the F-15E Strike Eagle and less than 20% of an F-16 in the same role. While no replacement for these fighter aircraft, this mission utilization is precisely how scores of hours have been accumulated by the F-15E, F-16, A-10, and F/A-18s over the past 30 years. The Scorpion delivers exceptional economy while enabling operations from austere environments with significantly more capable ISR payloads.

A veritable set of airborne eyes and ears, the Scorpion supports payloads that facilitate both kinetic and non-kinetic effects across all operational domains. With tremendous internal space for payloads, the Scorpion offers an excess of electrical power to support anticipated and unforeseen demands. A nose bay is available for configuration with electro-optical/infrared (EO-IR) sensors such as the L3 Wescam MX series, or an active electronically scanned array radar (AESA). Three large internal payload bays can be configured for use with sensors/payloads to support Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Hyperspectral Analysis, Electronic Warfare or other. Additional payloads such as a 4G LTE Hotspot could be very helpful in a humanitarian crisis. Like a smartphone, the Scorpion’s capabilities are limited only by the ingenuity of providers to fill the space and power available.

The Textron Scorpion demonstrates the ability to carry the L-3 Wescam MX-15 (nose bay) or the powerful MX-25 (payload bay 3). In both instances the EO IR sensor is fully retractable, and is stowed for flight operations until on station.

Permissive environments that utilize significant ISR assets such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint [SIGINT], E-8 JSTARS [Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and others may find more than adequate capability in a rightly configured Scorpion. Such downsizing of ISR packages would increase savings exponentially and free the most capable USAF assets for demanding mission sets.

Orbiting on station I found operating the sensor package while flying the aircraft via the Hands-on Throttle and Stick [HOTAS] intuitive and straightforward. Up front, Hinson utilized the Helmet Mounted Cueing System (HMCS) to demonstrate operational capabilities. Specific sensor packages overlay data from multiple payloads and create a single situational picture captured by time and geolocation. The data could be processed by a powerful computer package onboard, or streamed by secure network to other assets in space, the air or ground. As Textron Aviation Defense Senior Advisor Stephen Burke indicated, “We can pull out of the noise a target that is very difficult to see. A low contrast, short dwell target in a chaotic urban environment.” The kind of environment that the USAF has been operating in for years – with no end in sight.

View from the rear office of the Textron Scorpion while flying over Virginia, USA. The photo is distorted (canopy etc) due to the panorama function of the camera. The dots visible on canopy provide “calibration” for the Helmet Mounted Cueing System.

The massive increase in data generated by ISR platforms has created very real manpower challenges for Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED). An onboard, algorithm-driven computer system would provide a tremendous leap in PED capability. That kind of computer driven analysis of data is a capability USAF thought leaders have indicated is imperative.

The open architecture the Scorpion features for payloads is entirely separated from the aircrafts flight controls. Each system/sensor simply runs as a unique application within the main mission systems computer. This “non-proprietary” approach opens scores of possibilities for the user and their related contract negotiations. While speaking at the OA-X experiment at Holloman AFB, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson specified this approach (open architecture/non-proprietary) as a requirement to do business with the USAF moving forward. When Scorpion payload providers update their sensors with additional capabilities scores of hours of regression testing can be avoided – reference the ICD, plug, play and deploy. Rather than take years to upgrade sensors, it can be achieved in weeks.

The excellent flight characteristics I experienced are complemented by tremendous reliability and ease of operations. Whether in weapons testing, flight testing or international travel – the Scorpion has demonstrated exceptional readiness rates. Most recently flying from Wichita, Kansas to the Dubai Air Show, “P2” visited nine countries in six days with 100 percent mission readiness. 100 percent readiness sounds fictitious. However, it is not all that surprising given the aircraft utilizes proven and widely deployed commercial systems.

While visiting Saudi Arabia, Royal Saudi Air Force pilots quickly qualified in the Scorpion and scored multiple direct hits with inert GBU-12s. At the Dubai Air Show the Textron team continued flight operations with multiple demonstrations showcasing Scorpion’s capabilities to an array of international prospective customers.

Unlike the USAF during the O-AX experiment, or the Saudi Arabian Air Force pilots, my flight demonstration carried no ordnance. However, a target below was designated and Hinson demonstrated an attack profile with a precision guided munition. The Scorpion features a proven Stores Management System [SMS] that will continue to grow as more ordnance is qualified for the aircraft.

Textron Scorpion fires 2.75″ Hydra-70 rocket during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-440 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days (Photo: Erik Hildebrandt)

Returning to the airfield, I had the time to appreciate the exceptional view, and the potential value the aircraft could bring to the growing USAF pilot shortage. During the OA-X experiment, it was noted by USAF leadership that procurement of additional low-cost airframes would be required to surge pilot training/skills development to address the pilot shortage.

Textron strongly believes Scorpion is a compelling fit for USAF pilots — and for USN pilots who graduate out of flight school. Their first assignment in a Scorpion would expose them to a low-cost but very capable platform that brings forward the future of the DoD operations. Scorpion pilots will be immersed in the combat cloud, secure communications, fusion warfare, sensor operation and management. I can think of no better platform for pilots to learn relevant systems and build hours while preparing for the power of the DoD’s upgraded Gen 4 and Gen 5 aircraft and the high intensity fight.

Regardless the virtues of the platform, Textron’s approach to build an aircraft tailored to military operations where no stated requirement exists is rare and risky. However, it is not risk taken in a vacuum, but rather a bold example of entrepreneurship that was inspired by the thought leadership of the USAF and military aviators. Aside the absence of an official requirement, reviews of articles penned and speeches made by the thought leaders of the USAF reveal the basis for design of the Scorpion and the Textron model.

USAF thought leadership defines an Air Force that utilizes Fusion Warfare; the Combat Cloud; Open Architecture; Non-proprietary system contracts; the Information Battlespace; addresses the pilot shortage; operates much more cost effectively with a high/low platform mix that generates airframe and fuel savings (see Logistical Fratricide); and empowers Decision Superiority. Well, it looks like the Scorpion addresses each of these operational concepts/issues and brings additional capabilities to the deploying Air Force (the USAF or any number of its allies). As such, the platform may not only serve an immediate need, it can also define a model approach for future weapons systems development.

Air Force thought leaders have been speaking. It appears Textron was listening closely and, as a result, the Scorpion presents a compelling opportunity. The airframe and flying qualities speak for themselves. Simplicity with riveting capability. The design philosophy of modularity and open architecture find me reflecting on my first encounter with something called an iPhone. At the time, I was using another device for phone and email communications and some of my colleagues bucked our corporate IT department, so they could utilize an iPhone.

At first, I didn’t get it. Today, the device I was using is all but forgotten and the smartphone and application stores rule. Perhaps the Scorpion and the model it presents will find similar success in changing the way forward for military airpower.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to the team at Textron Aviation Defense, specifically to the patient and gracious Chief Test Pilot Dan “Shaka” Hinson and Pilot Matt “Tajma” Hall. An exceptional team of professionals across the board.

Yemen’s Houthi Rebels Claim They Have Shot Down A Saudi Eurofighter Typhoon Over Yemen

Yemeni media outlets are reporting that a Royal Saudi Air Force Typhoon was shot down over Yemen yesterday. However no pictures have been released to back Houthi rebels claims, so far.

According to several still unconfirmed media reports, a RSAF Typhoon fighter was shot down by Yemen’s Shia Houthi rebels on Oct. 27. The fate of the pilot is unknown at the time of writing. No images of the wreckage or any other kind of evidence have been released so far.

“Yemen’s air defense unit told the country’s Arabic-language al-Masirah television network that the aircraft had been targeted with a surface-to-air missile as it was flying in the skies over Nihm district east of the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a on Friday evening,” Yemen Press reported.

For the moment there haven’t been comments by the Saudi-led coalition over the Houthi claims. Still, Saudi sources, including popular Saudi military aviation expert @MbKS15, deny the accident has occurred, saying it’s just propaganda.

Earlier this month, on Oct. 1, a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone was shot down over Sanaa: footage filmed from several different locations (the UAV was over the capital in daylight conditions when it was destroyed) depicted the incident from start to finish.

If confirmed, this would be the second Saudi Typhoon lost over Yemen while supporting Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led air war on the Houthi rebels in the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula: indeed, a RSAF Eurofighter crashed into a mountain in Al Wade’a district on Sept. 13. Back then, the cause of the crash was an alleged technical failure during a CAS (Close Air Support) mission. The pilot, identified as Mahna al-Biz, died in the accident.

Anyway, provide the reports are accurate and a Typhoon has really been shot down, the accident would be the fourth crash of a Eurofighter jet in one a a half months: along with the already mentioned RSAF Typhoon combat aircraft that crashed in Yemen on Sept. 13, 2017, on Sept. 24, an Italian Air Force Typhoon crashed into the sea while performing its solo display during the Terracina airshow killing the test pilot, whereas on Oct. 12, a Spanish Air Force Eurofighter crashed into the ground while returning to Albacete after taking part in the National Day Parade over Madrid.

We will update this post as soon as new official details/confirmation/denial emerge.

Top image credit: Alessandro Fucito

Saudi Eurofighter Typhoon Crashes During Combat Mission In Yemen, Killing The Pilot

A Royal Saudi Air Force Typhoon has crashed in Yemen’s southern province of Abyan, Yemen, killing the pilot.

A RSAF Typhoon combat aircraft involved in a mission against Houthi fighters over Yemen crashed into a mountain in Al Wade’a district on Sept. 13, 2017.

The pilot, identified as Mahna al-Biz, died in the incident that follows the one of a UAE pilot, who was also reportedly killed in another crash in Yemen last week, said Yemen’s Saba news agency.

According to the first (unconfirmed) reports on social networks, the aircraft suffered a technical failure during a CAS (Close Air Support) mission.

Codenamed Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi air war on Yemen started in 2015 with the goal to counter the Houthi offensive on Aden, the provisional capital town of the internationally recognized (yet domestically contested) Yemeni government.

Warplanes from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain are taking part in the operation.

The RSAF operates a fleet of 72 Typhoons (including the one that crashed yesterday), based at King Fahad Air Base, Taif.

The incident on Sept. 13, is the third deadly incident of the Euro-canard aircraft after the ones that involved two Spanish Typhoons (on Aug. 24, 2010, and Jun. 9, 2014) and the second to kill a Saudi pilot: the 2010 incident saw a Spanish twin-seat Typhoon crash at Spain’s Morón Air Base short after take-off for a training flight. It was being piloted by a Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force, who was killed, and a Spanish Air Force Major, who ejected safely. All the six Eurofighter users grounded or restricted operations with their aircraft as a result of the Spanish accident, because of concerns surrounding the Mk16A ejection seat’s harness. “Under certain conditions, the quick release fitting could be unlocked using the palm of the hands, rather than the thumb and fingers and that this posed a risk of inadvertent release,” Martin-Baker said after the incident that led to a modification to the Typhoon seats that was developed to eliminate the risk.

Image credit: Fahd Rihan

 

 

 

Third batch of F-15SA Advanced Eagles delivered to Saudi Arabia via RAF Lakenheath

Delivery of the most advanced production Eagles ever to Saudi Arabia continue.

The first four of 84 new F-15SA aircraft ordered by the Royal Saudi Air Force along with an upgrade package for 68 existing RSAF F-15S jets, arrived at King Khalid Air Base (KKAB) in Saudi Arabia via RAF Lakenheath, on Dec. 13, 2016.

The aircraft, taken on charge by the 55th Sqn, were followed by a second batch of four F-15SAs that arrived at KKAB via Lakenheath in February, and by a third batch of five advanced Eagles that made the usual stopover in UK late on Saturday Mar. 28.

The third batch included: 12-1005/Retro 61, 12-1008/Retro 62, 12-1932/Retro 63, 12-1039/Retro 64 and 12-1047/Retro 65.

The Aviationist’s Tony Lovelock was at RAF Lakenheath and shot the photographs you can find in this post.

Note the tiny U.S. Air Force roundel clearly visible just below the cockpit area.

Derived from the F-15E Strike Eagle, the F-15SA is the most advanced production Eagle ever produced. It is equipped with the APG-63V3 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, a digital glass cockpit, JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mouted Cueing System), Digital Electronic Warfare System/Common Missile Warning System (DEWS/CMWS) and IRST (Infra Red Search and Track) system.
Moreover, the “SA” jet is able to carry several air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, including the AIM-120C7 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) and the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, the AGM-84 SLAM-ERs, the AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) and the GBU-39 SDBs (Small Diameter Bombs) on 11 external hardpoints.

Image credit: Tony Lovelock

 

Royal Saudi Air Force F-15s and Typhoons fly to Sudan to train with the Sudanese MIGs and Sukhois for the very first time

Blue Shield-1 exercise underway in Sudan. An interesting opportunity for the Saudi pilots to train with Russian-built combat planes.

The Royal Saudi Air Force has deployed 4 F-15C Eagles and 4 Eurofighter Typhoons, from the 2nd Wing based at King Fahd Air Base, to Sudan for the first time.

The Saudi combat planes have arrived at Merowe Air Base, located about 330 km to the north of Khartoum, to take part in Ex. Blue Shield-1, a joint aerial exercise with the Sudanese Air Force, until Apr. 12.

The Saudi Eagles arrive in Sudan

A Eurofighter Typhoon after landing at Merowe Air Base, Sudan.

Two RSAF Eurofighter jets taxi after arriving in Sudan.

The Sudanese Air Force is taking part in the drills with 24 aircraft including MiG-29 Fulcrum, Su-25 Frogfoot and Su-24 Fencer jets as well as Mi-17 Hip helicopters.

Taking part in Blue Shield-1 exercise are also 24 Sudanese aircraft, including these Su-25 Frogfoots.

Sudan’s Air Force Su-25s and MiG-29s based at Merowe Air Base.

Blue Shield -1 exercise is the very first aerial exercise between the two nations therefore it represents an interesting opportunity for the RSAF pilots to train flying with and aganist Russian “hardware.”

Interestingly, the RSAF hasn’t deployed any twin seaters to Sudan, which will not give the Sudanese any chance for orientation rides aboard the Saudi “western” aircraft.

A RSAF F-15C depicted taxing at Merowe Air Base.

The Saudi F-15S and Typhoons have taken part in the air strikes in Yemen, as part of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen, since Mar. 26 2015. A RSAF F-15S crashed in the Gulf of Aden during the opening day of the air war; its two pilots ejected safely and were recovered from the sea by a USAF HH-60G rescue helicopter. Although Houthi and Iranian sources stated that the Eagle was shot down, Saudi and Arab coalition authorities denied such reports.

Those deployed to Sudan are the “legacy” Eagle, less advanced than the “S” and F-15SA, derived from the F-15E Strike Eagle, and the most modern Eagle variant ever produced: they are equipped with the APG-63V3 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, a digital glass cockpit, JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mouted Cueing System), Digital Electronic Warfare System/Common Missile Warning System (DEWS/CMWS), IRST (Infra Red Search and Track) system, and able to carry a wide array of air-to-air and air-to-surface weaponry, including the AIM-120C7 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) and the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, the AGM-84 SLAM-ERs, the AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) and the GBU-39 SDBs (Small Diameter Bombs) on 11 external hardpoints.

The RSAF has received its first of 84 F-15SA at King Khalid Air Base (KKAB) in Saudi Arabia via RAF Lakenheath, on Dec. 13, 2016 (the day after the Israeli received their first 5th generation F-35I).

The Saudi flight line in Sudan.

The RSAF EF-2000s on a taxiway at Merowe Air Base, Sudan.

Saudi Eagle and Typhoons at their parking slots at Merowe Air Base, north of Khartoum.

In 2015 Sudan moved away from its longstanding alliance with Iran and joined the Saudi-led air coalition against Yemen’s Shia Houthi militia group.

H/T to Mohamed Khaled (@MbKS15) for providing additional information about the exercise. Image credit: Fahad Rihan

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