WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee has reservations about the Navy’s plans to transition from the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet into the Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, future fighter jet, though it’s unclear if the committee will take action to force a change in plans.
The Navy envisions fielding air wings with a mix of fourth-generation Super Hornets and fifth-generation F-35C Joint Strike Fighters from now — with the soon-to-deploy Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group bringing the F-35C on its first deployment — into the 2030s. Once the Super Hornets begin to retire, the NGAD will replace them.
A program office has been stood up to lead the replacement effort, but little information has been released about what kind of plane the Navy wants and how much progress it has made in designing the jet or developing components.
To tide the Navy over until NGAD hits the fleet, the service also wants to modernize and extend the life of some of its Super Hornets through a service life modification program, which takes place at Boeing’s fighter production line in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Navy is confident enough in this plan that it asked in fiscal 2022 budget request to stop Super Hornet production, believing that it can extend its current fleet long enough and field NGAD quick enough that the service won’t suffer a significant fighter shortfall during the transition.
HASC isn’t convinced.
“If you look at the current execution of their SLM [service life modification] line, they can’t meet their cost or schedule that they’re planning to: They’re trying to put through Hornets within a year time frame at a cost of about $7-8 million; right now the time frame is nearly double that, as well as the cost,” a committee aide told reporters in a July 28 briefing ahead of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee’s markup on July 29. “So basically the Navy is not executing their SLM program as they’re currently planning for in the future.
“We’re aware that the Navy wants to focus more resources and funding on NGAD. But if you recall eight or 10 years ago, they tried to do the same thing when F-35C was in development. They truncated the Super Hornet line to focus more on F-35C, and they found out, as the F-35C kind of struggled, the Navy had to go back to procuring more Super Hornets.
“We’re cautious about the Navy’s approach to truncate a hot production line while they focus on a new development program. And given the technology they’re trying to integrate into NGAD, it’s probably not going to be any easier than what F-35C was. So just taking lessons learned from the past, we’re just keeping an eye on how the Navy is going to move forward with trying to manage and mitigate their strike fighter shortfall.”
Navy leaders said in a 2020 hearing with the subcommittee that they needed to stop Super Hornet production so Boeing could use the production line for the modification program, which converts older Super Hornets to a more capable Block III variant and adds thousands of flight hours to the jets’ expected service life. Prior to this decision to end the production line, which was formally announced in the Navy’s FY21 funding request, the Navy planned to buy 36 more jets in FY22 through FY24.
The service has also argued it needs to stop Super Hornet production to reroute funding to NGAD.
The committee aide said in the briefing that any decisions about forcing the Navy to continue buying Super Hornets to ward off a significant shortfall next decade would be made in the full committee section of the bill and the funding tables, which are to be released later this summer ahead of a planned Sept. 1 full committee markup.
The Navy previously said it faced a shortfall of 49 jets that would be resolved by 2030, and that that shortfall wouldn’t hinder carrier strike group operations. More recently, the Navy told HASC that the shortfall would be resolved by 2025, despite cutting 36 Super Hornets from future budget plans and seeing delays in the Super Hornet modification program.
“We are kind of scratching our heads on how the Navy moved up their analysis in terms of eliminating the shortfall by about five years. One, they didn’t reinstate the 36 aircraft, Super Hornets, they were going to procure in ’22, ’23, ’24. They also took out about 104 aircraft out of their service life modification program. Also, their NGAD program, the Next [Generation] Air Dominance, is pretty much on the same timeline that it was last year,” the aide said.
The Pentagon has not released information on future years spending plans; budget requests often include a five-year Future Years Defense Plan, but in this first request by the Biden administration, the Pentagon only released FY22 spending plans.
The aide noted that “with us not being able to see their FYDP numbers, we’re kind of skeptical to understand how the Navy manipulated the data and their analysis to bring the shortfall to resolve five years earlier in 2025.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.