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End In Sight For The Hornet Line - Or Is It?

Feb. 15, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS   |   Comments
Although the Navy plans to buy no more Super Hornets or Growlers, Boeing hopes that allies in Congress and the Navy keep the F/A-18 line open with new EA-18Gs, like this Growler from Electronic Attack Squadron 130.
Although the Navy plans to buy no more Super Hornets or Growlers, Boeing hopes that allies in Congress and the Navy keep the F/A-18 line open with new EA-18Gs, like this Growler from Electronic Attack Squadron 130. (US Marine Corps)
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WASHINGTON As things stand, when the new US defense budget is revealed next month a significant line item that has been a staple for more than four decades will be missing.

No new versions of the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet strike fighter, or its EA-18G Growler electronic attack cousin, will appear in the US Navy’s budget request, either for domestic or foreign use. The move has been planned for some time, but is likely to surprise many veteran defense observers — and alarm others.

Some in Congress are hoping to continue production, and lawmakers added $75 million in the 2014 defense appropriations bill in advance procurement for 22 new planes. Boeing, maker of the aircraft, is eager to sell the Navy more EA-18Gs, but it remains to be seen if the money will be spent that way.

“This is a decision that will be driven more by budget availability now than anything else,” observed Mark Gunzinger, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington. “I’m seeing, with the exception of a number of stalwart supporters for defense spending, a general lack of interest on the part of Congress in defense.”

The Navy would not comment on its plan for the advanced procurement funds, but Boeing did.

“A near-term decision to include Super Hornets or Growlers in the fiscal 2015 budget is critical to preserve the future of naval aviation and the US industrial base,” the company said in a statement. “Our Navy customer would need to address questions related to future budgets.”

Since its inception as the Hornet in the 1970s, the F/A-18 has populated the decks of US aircraft carriers, first as the Hornet — which replaced scores of F-14 Tomcats and A-6 Prowlers — and later as the F/A-18 E and F Super Hornet, which in turn supplanted earlier 18s. In recent years the EA-18G Growler electronic attack variant has become ever more important, replacing older EA-6B Prowlers.

But with the last block buy orders in 2014, the Navy will have 563 Super Hornets and 138 Growlers, and that’s all the service wants for its 10 carrier air wings.

Boeing’s plant in St. Louis, Mo., will remain busy producing the aircraft until late 2016 when, at current production rates and barring no further orders, the line will close — an event that will have repercussions around the country. According to Mike Gibbons, Boeing’s top executive for F/A-18 and EA-18 production, 90,000 full-time jobs around the US are “fully dependent” on Super Hornet/Growler production, representing an economic impact of $6 billion annually.

Boeing and its top partner Northrop Grumman produce four new aircraft per month. In about a year, Gibbons said, the rate is likely to drop to three aircraft, with a chance the rate could drop to two — the minimum sustainable rate. As the line slows, the number of jobs dependent on the aircraft will shrink as well, he said, down to about 60,000 jobs.

Slowing the production rate would give Boeing more time to convince US supporters to buy more aircraft, or find foreign buyers — an increasingly thin market.

Boeing missed out last year on the Brazilian FX-2 fighter program, a long, tough campaign eventually won by Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen. For more than a decade, Boeing had aimed to garner the contract, which would have included 36 F/A-18s.

The company is offering the Super Hornet to Denmark, which plans to formally seek requests for proposals this summer for a potentially $5 billion program to replace its fleet of F-16 fighters. Other potential customers include Kuwait, Canada and — further down the road — Malaysia.

For the US, Boeing sees its Growler has having the best chance for continued procurement.

“As the electronic attack platform, there’s nothing like it in the fleet, nor is anything like it planned in near-term future budgets,” Gibbons said Feb. 14. “It’s a broad-band electronic attack platform that has electronic and attack capability.”

Australia, which is buying 24 two-seat F/A-18Fs, announced in May it would purchase 12 Growlers – the first foreign customer for the aircraft. No further orders, however, are anticipated at this time.

“I don’t see any foreign orders right now to keep the line going after 2016,” Gunzinger said.

The potential end of F/A-18 production comes as the two other long-running US fighter programs, General Dynamics’ F-16 and Boeing’s F-15, are winding down. If all three programs end, it would leave the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as the only US strike aircraft still in production.

“That is a significant industrial base question,” observed Gunzinger. “Do we want to have more than one company capable of designing and producing sophisticated combat aircraft such as future fighters?”

The issue is larger than a focus on just one plane, he said. “This is a strategic issue, an industrial base issue. Something that the country needs to ask ourselves, do we want to go down this path? I think it’s rather remarkable that all three are ending their production lines within a few years of each other.”

Gibbons, asked about his confidence that further US orders would come, demurred.

“I don’t want to speculate on a confidence level,” he said. “We’re going to let the ‘15 budget process play out. We think there’s a lot of opportunity for jets to get debated.”

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