WASHINGTON AND DUBAI — The United Arab Emirates is in discussions with Textron AirLand about becoming an early customer for Textron’s new Scorpion jet, according to sources.
While roadblocks remain to a potential deal, two sources with knowledge of the discussions indicated the talks are proceeding, including discussions between top Emirati officials and Textron’s CEO.
“There is interest in the UAE in the Scorpion, [and Textron Systems] Chief Executive Ellen Lord has been traveling and discussing with UAE Air Force and air defense officials for some time now,” said a US official familiar with the talks.
The Scorpion is designed to be an ISR plane with strike capabilities. First unveiled to industry skepticism in September 2013, the jet has won over a number of critics with its low cost and modular nature, a benefit of focusing on largely off-the-shelf components and composite parts.
The US official and an industry source with knowledge of the discussions said the UAE is eyeing the Scorpion for its aerobatic squadron Al Fursan, which flies the Alenia Aermacchi MB-339.
Aerobatic shows are not among the missions Textron had in mind when it designed the jet, yet the industry source said a purchase for Al Fursan would be a first step in a larger relationship.
“That’s probably looking at it as an entry point to get in there with the aircraft,” the industry source said. “This would be a fit for the M-346 mission as well.”
The UAE selected Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346 trainer in 2009, with an eye toward buying 48 aircraft, preferring it to the Korean T-50. But the deal then reportedly was entangled in a side deal to sell UAVs to the UAE, which was halted by technology transfer rules. Neither side has made an announcement since on the fate of the deal.
An Alenia source said that since the UAE’s selection of the M-346, nothing has changed.
“For Alenia Aermacchi, it is a strategic market,” he added. “They have the requirement and they decide to buy, we will be there.”
In August, the Scorpion team told Defense News it is developing a trainer-specific variant of the jet. That design would keep the twin-engine, twin-tail design of the basic Scorpion while shortening the wings from 47 feet to make them more aerodynamic, as well as increasing the thrust in the engine.
How the trainer variant changes could affect the cost per flying hour is unclear, but the estimated price, modularity and the fact there is already an ISR/light-strike package for the jet could make Scorpion an attractive replacement for the M-346.
“The Scorpion’s versatility, availability of spare parts and cost are attractive features,” the US official noted.
Benefits and Roadblocks
Giving the Textron bid a leg up is the potential for the government-owned Strata Manufacturing to take part in production of the jet’s composite body.
“The economics will be important as well,” the industry source said. “Strata will take a look and figure out how much of the airplane it can build. In terms of value added, Scorpion has the composite parts and Abu Dhabi has always wanted to produce aircraft.”
Textron officials have already briefed Homaid al-Shemmari, CEO of Strata’s parent company Mubadala Aerospace, on the jet, the industry source said.
Still, a number of large roadblocks remain in any potential agreement.
The UAE has been reluctant to be the launch customer for a new plane — a reluctance that is continuing now, with the industry source saying the UAE wants Textron to find another customer before officially signing on.
Where that customer would come from is unclear, although Textron officials have maintained there is a large potential market in Asia.
The industry source said Textron has had discussions, albeit preliminary, with Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with Malaysia and Brunei the most likely to bear fruit.
Combined with a need to do deeper analysis on how the Scorpion would fit in with the training requirements put forth by the Emirati military, the industry source indicated any official agreement is still far off.
“I think it’s another 18 months away from an announcement, maybe two years. I think this is a 2016 candidate,” the source said. “But my money is still on Textron.”
A spokesman for the UAE could not be reached for comment, while a Textron spokesman declined to comment specifically on any potential UAE deal.
“Textron’s policy is not to comment about possible future sales, but the global international interest in Scorpion is strong, continues to grow, and we do have nations interested in being the launch customer,” spokesman David Sylvestre said.
The company has had great success at generating publicity with the Scorpion, which was kept largely secret until its unveiling in September 2013.
But while the jet has been widely traveled — internationally to the United Kingdom for the Farnborough International Airshow and domestically to shows such as the Air Force Association’s annual conference — it has yet to secure a first customer.
Company officials have made no secret of a desire to capture part of the US market, with plans to enter a Scorpion variant in the Air Force’s T-X trainer replacement competition. Yet officials have also been clear that the first customer is likely to be an international one.
Speaking to Defense News in July, Whit Peters, a former Air Force secretary and an adviser on the Scorpion project, outlined where the target market for the fighter may be.
“There are a lot of air forces that need something that can do ISR, potentially strike, but primarily what they need is something they can afford to acquire and operate safely,” Peters said.