WASHINGTON — The US Navy's case for requesting more Boeing-made F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighters rests with two issues: requirements and replacements.
It's been only two years since the US Navy quit buying F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighters — part of a long-planned transition to the F-35C joint strike fighter — but a confluence of events has led to the new possibility that more attack aircraft could be ordered from Boeing.
When the US Navy submitted its fiscal 2015 request a year ago, it was the first budget since the 1970s that did not include some version of the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter. Procurement of F/A-18 E and F Super Hornets ended in 2013, and the last of 138 EA-18G Growler electronic warfare versions was included in the 2014 budget.
Congress, however, added an unplanned-for 15 Growlers in the 2015 budget, responding to a Navy unfunded priority list request to meet a joint tactical need. The move keeps open Boeing's St. Louis production line an extra year, through 2017.
Now, a strike fighter shortfall the Navy thought it could manage by a variety of methods is being further exacerbated, and it seems highly likely that when the new unfunded requirements list is submitted to Congress by mid-March, it will include a request for new Super Hornets.
"We have a shortfall in Super Hornets, we do," Adm. Jon Greenert, chief of naval operations, told Congress on March 4. "And we're going to have to work our way through here in order to manage it."
The shortfall is not a new situation — it's been developing for years, and was something the Navy's leadership thought it could manage its way through. But in recent weeks, sources said, the emphasis has shifted from using current resources to deal with the problem to including the purchase of new aircraft as part of an overall solution.
Simply put, the situation breaks down like this:
- The fleet has about 600 F/A-18C Hornet "legacy" aircraft — pre-Super Hornet strike fighters — in its current inventory, with something over half scheduled to be replaced by 340 new F-35Cs. About 300 of the 18Cs are out of service, according to the Navy.
- Budget constraints and software development issues have pushed out F-35C procurement to the right — delayed by several years — and the first "35 Charlies" aren't scheduled to reach initial operating capability until 2018. Full rate production of 20 aircraft per year isn't planned until 2020, and it will be another two years before those aircraft enter service.
- Increased operating tempos due to combat operations against the Islamic State in northern Iraq and western Syria meant that the Navy did not realize reduced flying hours from the drawdown in Afghanistan.
- Thus the legacy Hornets need to keep flying longer. While they were rated up to a lifespan of 6,000 flying hours, the Navy figures it needs a service life extension program (SLEP) to get 150 of those planes out to 108,000 hours.
- With fewer F/A-18Cs flying, newer E and F Super Hornets are being used up at higher rates than planned.
- Budget reductions in recent years reduced money for depot maintenance, creating something of a backlog that, a year ago, reached 65 F/A-18Cs. Technicians, however, discovered much higher levels of corrosion when those aircraft were opened up, leading to growth in the number of aircraft that needed work, and a longer work period to deal with them. While the Navy has restored the depot funding, the backlog has expanded from 65 to 100 aircraft, and the service is struggling to hire more skilled labor to work on the planes.
- The growth in the backlog of 35 aircraft over the past year led Greenert to estimate the need was for "two or three squadrons" of new strike fighters to plug the gap. F/A-18 E and F Super Hornets are organized into 12-plane squadrons, while 18Cs fly in squadrons of 10 aircraft. Two squadrons of new planes works out to 24 aircraft, 36 for three squadrons.
The Navy in 2012 surveyed its strike fighter inventory to assess the problem. "We looked at the inventory challenges," said Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy's director of air warfare. "SLEP 150 F/A-18Cs and buy 41 Es and Fs."
"As we pushed JSF outside to the right — this latest budget moved 16 outside the FYDP [future years defense plan] — I'm not making up those aircraft." Over the past three years, Manazir said, a total of 159 F-35C carrier variant and F-35B Marine jump jets have been moved out of the FYDP.
Assuming the air fleet keeps flying at about 330 hours a year per airplane, he said, "from 2020 to 2035, I need to be buying about 30 to 39 aircraft per year to replace" older, worn-out aircraft. "It's a product of supply and demand."
Another key factor, Manazir noted, is the Super Hornet mid-life refit program expected a decade from now.
"I have to get 563 Super Hornets out to 9,000 hours," he noted. "Ten years from now I'm going to be in the middle of SLEP'ping 563 airplanes. Do I have enough depot capacity? If I can do that successfully, I can manage that risk. Procurement [of new aircraft] reduces that risk."
Some observers look at a Navy effort to keep buying Boeing F/A-18s as an indication the service is soft on support for the Lockheed Martin F-35. Manazir insists there is no truth to that.
"There is no move here to not buy something," he declared. "In order for me to win in 2024 I have to have F-35Cs flying with F-18Es and Fs. I have to. And I have to be able to fill my air wings out.
"What I try to do is avoid — because it's not true — the F-18 Boeing versus the Lockheed Martin F-35" story line, he said. "Because for the United States Navy, it's not all about getting the F-35, it's about getting the integrated capabilities of the high-end war fight, which takes the F-18 E/F and the F-35C. It takes them both."
The number of aircraft Greenert is talking about, Manazir said, is the right number.
"So two to three squadrons in 2016 — 36 airplanes — helps me reduce my risk of extension for that.
"If I reduce my risk through that procurement that he testified to, and I can extend my 18Es and Fs to the plan that I'm going to now, and I'm going to procure F-35Cs to the tune of 20 per year starting in 2020, I've reduced my risk to a manageable level. And that's my entire cohesive plan going forward."