WASHINGTON — The needs of the US Navy aside, the prospect of keeping Boeing in the business of building Super Hornet fighters raises any number of cost issues, along with the possibility of more future exports.
Last week, Navy officials made the case for requesting additional funding for two to three dozen more F/A-18s in order to have enough aircraft to meet missions as the service awaits the F-35.
"Where are they going to get the money for it?" asked Byron Callan, a defense market analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, echoing the most obvious question in a town where sequestration-related spending restrictions are a pervasive daily topic.
"It answers the question of 'how do I keep the Boeing line open so when I decide to truncate the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) there will still be something there?' " said asked Jerry Hendrix, a former director of Navy History, now a defense analyst with the Center for a New American Security. He referred to long-standing suspicions that the Navy wants to reduce its buy of 680 Lockheed Martin F-35 JSFs, something the service strenuously denies.
There are sSeveral foreign fighter programs that are or could soon be up for grabs where the Super Hornet could be a contender. Denmark is expected to make a decision this summer on its their F-16 replacement program, and Kuwait is expected in a few months to reveal plans for a fighter competition. Both programs are expected to involve the purchase of between 24 to and 36 aircraft.
Belgium and the United Arab Emirates also are in the early stages of a fighter competition, and Canada, a current F/A-18 Hornet operator, continues to debate its participation in the F-35 program.
On the industrial side, about 1,200 employees at Boeing's manufacturing facility in St. Louis work directly on building the jets, said Dan Gillian, the company's F/A-18 and EA-18 program manager, with about the same number of employees supporting the program in different roles. He also cited the nationwide aspect of the Super Hornet/Growler program — "about 60,000 jobs, 800 suppliers in 44 states."
Buying more strike fighters would keep the production line humming another few years, allowing the company to keep the F/A-18 in contention for several international fighter competitions.
"I think the Navy will make their decision on what the Navy needs rather than export costs or what's good for the company," Callan said. opined. "But if Boeing gets another year or two of production, that very much keeps Boeing in the running for these international competitions."
There are sSeveral foreign fighter programs that are or could soon be up for grabs where the Super Hornet could be a contender. Denmark is expected to make a decision this summer on their F-16 replacement program, and Kuwait is expected in a few months to reveal plans for a fighter competition. Both programs are expected to involve the purchase of between 24 and 36 aircraft.
Belgium and the United Arab Emirates also are in the early stages of a fighter competition, and Canada, a current F/A-18 Hornet operator, continues to debate its participation in the JSF program.
The last group of F/A-18 E and F strike fighters ordered by the Navy in 2013 won't be delivered until the end of 2016, Gillian said, but the congressional plus-up of 15 EA-18G Growlers to last year's defense budget will keep the line open through 2017. Even with work on 12 Growlers for Australia — the first of which will be delivered this summer — adding to the number of aircraft still to be finished, Boeing will drop back early in 2016 from delivering three aircraft per month to two.
"Two per month is the minimum economic rate. What we don't want to do is go up and down," Gillian said. "If more orders come in we can make different decisions, but right now two is the plan.
This summer, however, Boeing will need to decide what to do with supply-chain orders for new aircraft. Those components need to be ordered months, even a year or more, in advance of their need on the production line.
"Titanium structural components are the most significant long-term lead driver," Gillian noted, along with APG-79 active electronically scanned array radars from Raytheon.
The risks for ordering parts for aircraft that have yet to be officially contracted for are borne by Boeing, Gillian said, noting that Growler "kits" from Northrop Grumman and other electronic warfare components have already been ordered for the 15 new Growlers, even though no contract has yet been signed with the Navy.
There is also concern about preserving the dwindling aviation industrial base, a once-thriving business that has seen dozens of manufacturers go out of business or merge. Among the major companies, only Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman remain out of dozens of former aircraft builders and designers.
"Everyone in town is watching the long-range strategic bomber," Hendrix said, referring to the US Air Force's major new aircraft program. "Between tankers, bombers and fighters, clearly someone is going to go away. So maybe the Pentagon steps in and manages the industrial base."
"There's a high potential [that] someone goes away or gets bought out," Hendrix added. "From an industrial base viewpoint, that makes me nervous. The aviation industrial base is even thinner than the naval industrial base."
The issue can't wait too long to decide, noted Callan said.
"The timing on this is important," he said. "Once you start shutting these things down they tend to become irreversible."