WASHINGTON: The Boeing Super Hornet might have a new best friend in Congress. A year after the Saint Louis-built fighter jet’s biggest backer in Congress, then-Rep. Todd Akin, went down in electoral flames because of controversial remarks about “legitimate rape,” the influential chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Seapower, Rep. Randy Forbes, has stepped up with a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urging him to fund continued production.
“A lot of it will come down to Navy vs. OSD [the Office of the Secretary of Defense],” said Richard Aboulafia, a leading aviation industry analyst with the Teal Group. “OSD groans at the very possibility of more of these airplanes, because it undercuts the case for F-35” — Lockheed Martin’s much-delayed and over-budget Joint Strike Fighter — “and F-35 needs all the numbers it can get to ramp up to an economical rate [of production].”
The Navy plans to buy the last F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers, a radar-jamming variant, in the fiscal year 2014 budget now very much up in the air on Capitol Hill. “If nothing is done, the last order closes around 2016,” Aboulafia told me. The Saint Louis factory still has some guaranteed work through 2018, building F-15 Eagles for Saudi Arabia, though further F-15 sales are much in doubt. The Hornet/Growler production line shuts down in 2016, however, and the supplier base starts withering well before: Boeing told me they’ll have to make key decisions on long-lead items in early 2014. “When you lose a line,” said Aboulafia, “you almost never get it back.”
That’s why Forbes wants the Pentagon to consider keeping the line — and its options — open. Forbes doesn’t represent Missouri, where the Hornet is built, but his homestate of Virginia builds every Navy aircraft carrier and is homebase to half the fleet, so the he’s profoundly concerned about the aircraft those carriers launch. Once the Hornet/Growler line goes cold, he points out, “the Department will be left with a sole-source tactical aircraft program for the Navy.” In fact, when the F-15 line in Saint Louis shuts down in turn, Boeing will be out of the fighter business altogether, leaving a Lockheed Martin monopoly.
The F-35 is designed to replace the Hornet, the F-15, and a host of other US aircraft. But, as Forbes notes in his letter, the Navy F-35C variant won’t enter service until February 2019 — assuming no further delays. Boeing and its allies have taken repeated shots at the troubled Lockheed Martin program, including in the video above from a would-be Boeing supplier.
But Boeing has so far failed to sell more Super Hornets and Growlers either to the Pentagon or abroad, except for a 36-plane contract with Australia. (Production for that order also finishes in 2016). They’re still trying hard, however: “The Super Hornet is currently involved in competitions in Brazil, Malaysia, Denmark and countries in the Middle East,” said a Boeing spokesperson, “[and] Canada is interested in taking a look at the Super Hornet.”
On the home front, in October, the Navy briefly posted, then retracted, a solicitation for “up to 36” planes in the 2015 budget. At the time, different Navy spokespersons explained this as either keeping the door open just in case the service changed its mind or as a bureaucratic mistake. Aboulafia, among others, thinks there’s more to the story: “It looked for all the world that they were trying to start something and were shot down by OSD.”
So, said Aboulafia, “they need all the political champions they can find — and when I say they, I mean the faction of the Navy that wants to go this way [i.e. buy more Super Hornets]. It’s quite possibly the majority of the Navy right now, but it’s not all of it, which is why it’s confusing. There’s also the part that wants to be a team player and stick with the other services” and buy F-35s.
“The Navy does not have a unified position of the subject of F/A-18 vs. F-35. There are different factions within the aviation community,” agreed Loren Thompson, a well-connected defense consultant, an analyst at the Lexington Institute thinktank, and a sometime contributor to this site. Even the current Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, has publicly stated both his commitment to the F-35C and his doubts about well stealth will really hold up in the face of ever more sophisticated sensors. What’s more, since Greenert is a submariner, said Thompson, “the CNO is largely dependent on the naval aviation community to inform him as to the merits of F-35 vs. F/A-18” — and that community remains divided.
“Over time, the naval aviation community has warmed to the F-35, but there are some issues like one engine versus two where the old-timers will always resist,” Thompson told me. (The Navy historically prefers a plane with two engines, like the F-18 series or the F-14 Tomcat of Top Gun fame, in case one engine dies unexpectedly on a flight over the ocean: The F-35 has one).
In an attempt to please both camps, Boeing has proposed upgrading the Super Hornet to something with F-35-like capabilities. “Some Navy factions seem to be pretty impressed with the Advanced Super Hornet,” said Thompson, “but it is a physical impossibility to make it as stealthy as the F-35.” Because even a souped-up Super Hornet would build on an airframe design dating back to the 1990s, he said, “it could never match the survivability of a plane that was conceived from day one to have integrated stealth.”
There’s also a business model problem with the Advanced Super Hornet, said Aboulafia: “all of it is available as a retrofit.” The Navy wouldn’t have to buy a single new airplane, just kits to upgrade its existing Super Hornets to Advanced level.
Finally, there’s the bottom-line question: where’s the money going to come from. Buying more Super Hornets, advanced or otherwise, is seen as a way to delay buying the first F-35Cs. But since F-35C production will take years to ramp up, there’s actually not much money to take away from it. “In the next three fiscal years,” said Aboulafia, “the numbers involved in F-35C procurement are so tiny they won’t buy more than a token number of Super Hornets.”
So where, in an ever-tighter budget, does the Pentagon find money to keep the Saint Louis production line alive? “That’s a great question,” Aboulafia said. “You plead, beg , borrow, and steal.”