WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy is back in the business of buying F/A-18 Super Hornets and Boeing is working to update the aircraft to meet warfighting needs.

"There is a general acceptance of the need to buy more aircraft to meet the fleet's shortfall," said Dan Gillian, Boeing's vice president for F/A-18 and E/A-18G programs. Boeing's strike fighter, he said, is "a low-risk, low-cost aircraft with improved capabilities."

In some ways, Boeing updated its Advanced Super Hornet (ASH) package unveiled in 2013 to meet changed requirements. The ASH, Gillian pointed out, had several stealth features that were considered no longer necessary in a carrier wing that would include F-35C stealth fighters, and the revamped offering, dubbed Block III, is geared more to warfighting and aircraft performance and less to concealment efforts.

"The narrative shifted the capability gap, and that's where we targeted Block III," he said, noting the new aircraft can carry more payload at higher speeds and altitude.

The longer range is "a big deal," he said. Boeing declined to provide specific figures.

Boeing also is working with the Navy to develop a Service Life Modernization Program (SLMP) for existing E and F strike fighters.

"We're doing assessment work," Gillian said, generating models to determine the material condition of aircraft and predict the range and frequency of unplanned work. He noted that aircraft which have remained in service tend to wear out less than aircraft which have been in storage.

"Aircraft that sit for a while – that's where corrosion really hits," he observed.

The Navy recently revealed that 62 percent of its strike fighters were out of service awaiting repairs – virtually twice the usual rate. The fleet's aviation depot repair system has been hit by budget cuts and irregular congressional funding, the Navy said, and is no longer able to keep up, creating a huge repair backlog.

An SLMP program would not address the depot repair effort, Gillian said, but would take in older aircraft in need of upgrades. The program – which could begin in 2018 -- would start slowly with only two or three aircraft, he said, but would likely ramp up to a potential maximum of 60 to 70 aircraft per year.

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