Shifting political winds are generating a new fighter jet competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The end result could be more F/A-18 Super Hornets and fewer F-35 joint strike fighters, according to defense and aerospace analysts.
President Donald Trump has bashed the F-35 program and complained about its high price tag. He asked Boeing, the manufacturer of the F/A-18, to price out a “comparable” Super Hornet as a potential alternative to Lockheed’s jet.
The new commander-in-chief suggested that major programmatic changes are afoot. “We’re going to do some big things on the F-35 program and perhaps the F/A-18 program,” he told reporters in January. “We’re going to get those costs down … and we’re going to have competition. And it’s going to be a beautiful thing.”
The Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy are buying the A, B and C variants of the F-35, respectively. The Pentagon is already laying the groundwork to compete the F/A-18 against the F-35C, the carrier-launched version of the joint strike fighter.
During his first week in office, Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a memo directing his deputy to oversee a review that compares their operational capabilities.
Mattis also tasked his subordinates to “assess the extent that F/A-18E/F improvements — an advanced Super Hornet — can be made in order to provide a competitive, cost effective, fighter aircraft alternative.”
The results and recommendations of the review will inform upcoming budget decisions, he said.
Meanwhile, Lockheed and Boeing executives have been meeting with Trump to tout their technologies and cost reduction efforts.
“The F-35 is the most capable multi-role fighter in the world,” a Lockheed spokesman told National Defense. “We look forward to continuing to work with the DoD and partner nations to deliver the F-35 at the most affordable price possible.”
In a statement Boeing said: “We have been responsive to requests for information from the incoming Trump administration. … We remain committed to working with the new president and Congress to provide affordable, capable Boeing products and services to meet our national security needs.”
The joint strike fighter is a fifth-generation aircraft designed to evade the most advanced enemy radars and have unprecedented situational awareness and information-sharing capabilities. The F/A-18E/F is fourth-generation but experts said Boeing is capable of taking the Super Hornet up a notch.
“There are improvements that you could make that would make it more like an F-35” including better sensors, extended range and low-observable technology, said Bryan Clark, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said the joint strike fighter’s capabilities are “on a completely different level” than the F/A-18s that exist today. But “you can do some things to the Super Hornet to make it kind of a four-and-a-half generation aircraft so it can be more relevant against the projected threat.”
Boeing is proposing several modifications to the current Block 2 design to create a “Block 3” advanced Super Hornet, said Caroline Hutcheson, a company spokeswoman.
They include removing fuel tanks from the wings and replacing them with conformal fuel tanks to increase the aircraft’s range and speed, which would make it more stealthy and enable it to carry more firepower.
When you “remove the tanks on the wings you enable additional magazine depth because you can put weapons there,” Hutcheson said.
Enhanced computing capabilities would facilitate information-sharing between the Block 3 Super Hornet and other aircraft such as the F-35, EA-18G Growler and E-2D Hawkeye, according to Boeing.
“We have an advanced cockpit system, which is sort of like a big iPad in the plane with a touchscreen, so that you can visualize the data and information that’s enabled by the new computer and targeting system,” Hutcheson said.
Infrared search and track technology would enable F/A-18 pilots to see and engage multiple targets at longer range, and operate as “a smart sensor node” on the U.S. military’s tactical aviation network.
At a recent conference, Richardson said the Navy needs “a healthy cadre of advanced Super Hornets” in addition to the joint strike fighter.
Boeing has been offering this type of airplane to the Navy since 2013. It probably wouldn’t take long for the company to roll it out, according to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group.
“Boeing has specced out pretty much all you can do to make a … more advanced Super Hornet,” he said.
“They’ve been on the books as a possible … solution for quite a few years now,” he added. “They could probably make the switch pretty quick. The only question is do they get any new-build or do they just get them via retrofit.”
Hutcheson said: “They’re known technologies. … This is not a far off idea.”
Because the Block 3 would use the same airframe design as the Block 2, Boeing believes the development effort would be low-risk and it would keep a lid on the fighter jet’s operating costs.
If Block 3 aircraft were budgeted in fiscal year 2019, new-builds could begin coming off the production line by the end of 2020, Hutcheson said.
Adding the new capabilities to existing platforms would also be an option, she said.
A Super Hornet service-life modification program is slated to kick off in 2018, she noted. “If it was determined that those would go to a Block 3 capability, then we would begin that work then.”
The joint strike fighter is almost twice as expensive as the Super Hornet, although the price of the F-35 should come down as it goes into higher rates of production, Aboulafia said.
The price tag for the low-rate initial production Lot 10 F-35C was $122 million.
Enhancing the capabilities of Boeing’s fighter jet would come with a significant bill and narrow the price gap, Clark noted.
“The cost of that F/A-18 then goes up as you add all these improvements to try to make it more like an F-35,” he said. “You’re creating an airplane that costs almost as much” as the joint strike fighter is projected to cost a few years from now.
Lockheed expects to get the price of the F-35A down to $85 million by 2019, although the C-variant might remain more expensive because production numbers will be lower and the aircraft has different technical requirements.
The latest Super Hornet cost upwards of $70 million, Hutcheson said. A souped-up Block 3 configuration would likely be “a few million more than that,” she said, adding that the company would have to determine the exact pricing with the Navy.
Boeing does not currently have an estimate for how much it would cost to give existing Super Hornets Block 3 capabilities during the service life modification program, she said.
Even if the proposed upgrades to the F/A-18 were carried out, experts argued that the joint strike fighter would still have greater capabilities when it comes to stealth, sensors and electronic warfare.
Assumptions about the future operating environment could dictate the number of fifth-generation planes that are ultimately purchased, they said.
“If your strategy requires you to operate continuously in denied-access air environments, there is no such thing as a comparable Super Hornet. It simply doesn’t exist,” said Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But if the Trump administration sees terrorist groups like the Islamic State as the greatest threat, that could change capability requirements for tactical aircraft, said Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at CSIS. For missions against these types of adversaries, fighters like the current Super Hornet could be sufficient.
“It may be terrorism is the top defense priority” rather than preparing to fight high-tech militaries such as Russia or China, he said during a recent panel discussion. “If that holds true then why do you need as many of these stealthy aircraft? ... It could dramatically change what we’re buying.”
The Navy would be more willing than the other services to procure more Super Hornets and fewer F-35s in the coming years, analysts said.
The Air Force needs more fifth-generation fighters because the F-22 Raptor production line was shut down much earlier than planned, Clark noted. The Air Force does not fly Super Hornets, and service leaders have spoken out against the idea of buying F/A-18s at the expense of stealthy F-35As, their top acquisition priority.
The F/A-18 “does not fulfill the same requirements,” then-Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said at a conference in January shortly before leaving office. “It’s a little bit apples and oranges.”
Additionally, the Super Hornet does not offer the vertical takeoff capability that the Marine Corps desires. The Marines need the F-35B to replenish that capability because they are experiencing problems with their aging AV-8B Harriers, Clark said.
The last Harrier squadron is slated to be deactivated in 2026, noted Marine Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation.
The aircraft are “rapidly coming out of relevancy,” he said during a recent meeting with defense reporters. “The F-35 is our answer to that.”
The Navy is not in the same boat when it comes to the joint strike fighter, Aboulafia said.
“The Navy is the one service that has … an actual procurement alternative,” he said. “It has a very negative experience developing its own stealth plane, the A-12. It has the fear that if they don’t have enough [combat ready] planes they could lose a carrier in the budget battles. And of course they are the last service with an institutional preference for a two-engine jet. All of this adds up” to the Navy being less keen about the joint strike fighter and more enthusiastic about the Super Hornet compared to the other services.
Some of the Navy’s most recent budget proposals are instructive, Harrison said.
“In multiple budget requests the Navy tried to reduce the number of F-35Cs they bought and they tried to keep increasing the F/A-18.
“I think [Trump] knew that he was picking at a scab, that the Navy had pushed for this in the past and … if Lockheed is going to feel competitive pressure from any other aircraft, it’s probably that one.”
The Navy can take advantage of fifth-generation aircraft well before it fields the F-35C, which means there is less urgency to bring the carrier variant into the fleet, Clark said. The F-35C is expected to reach initial operating capability in 2019. But the Marine Corps variant has already reached IOC, and the service plans to start deploying F-35Bs on big-deck amphibious ships in the Asia-Pacific region later this year.
“You put 15 or 20 F-35 Bravos [on amphibs] and then you marry that up with the regular aircraft carrier and its F/A-18s,” Clark said. “Now you’ve got a lot more airplanes and you’ve got a bunch of fifth-generation stealthy aircraft. … The Navy doesn’t have to be as urgently pursuing the F-35 Charlie because they can leverage the F-35 Bravo.”
Richardson appeared to endorse that operating concept. To stay ahead of advanced adversaries, the Navy needs to look at new approaches to air warfare and carrier operations, he said. “If you think about the introduction of the [joint strike fighter] onto our amphib force, that might be systemically the way to get after this.”
In its latest annual report to Congress, the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation office struck a pessimistic note about the C-variant’s schedule and predicted further delays. “Vertical oscillations during F-35C catapult launches were reported by the pilots as excessive, violent, and therefore a safety concern during this critical phase of flight,” it said. “The program is still investigating alternatives to address this deficiency, which makes a solution in time for … [scheduled] Navy fielding unlikely.”
Aboulafia said the report could add weight to the service’s argument that it needs more F/A-18s. “The Navy can use a little bit of justification to implement what it’s probably already decided, which is that it would like to keep the Super Hornet … procurement program going and the line going.”
A major shortfall in Navy fighters already exists due to high operating tempos and maintenance challenges with legacy aircraft. It might therefore be prudent for the Navy to hedge its bets when it comes to the joint strike fighter, Clark said.
The delivery schedule has already slipped several times, he noted. “That’s an argument for buying more F/A-18s now as a way to mitigate the effects of any more delays.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has fully embraced the idea. In a recent defense white paper, he noted the schedule slippage in the F-35C program, and argued that the Navy should procure 58 additional Super Hornets over the next five years to address tactical aviation shortages.
A major change in F-35C procurement could have ripple effects for the other variants, analysts warned.
“If the Navy were to reduce/abandon its buy of the F-35, there will be very significant cost increases for the Air Force, the Marine Corps and all the partners and allies who are buying aircraft,” Hunter said.
Fears of such repercussions among Pentagon leadership could make it more difficult for the Navy to cut back, Clark noted. “The need to maintain production at a certain level and to maintain the unit price at a certain level … in a joint program a lot of times overrides what the desires of a particular service might be.”
The Pentagon plans to procure approximately 2,400 joint strike fighters including more than 300 F-35Cs.
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at CSIS, doesn’t expect the Defense Department to completely walk away from the Navy variant. But a major reduction in the buy — perhaps 100 aircraft or so — might be in the cards, he said.
“They’re not just going to get out of the F-35 business because you have to have that [fifth-generation fighter]. But I could imagine that you could fill the decks with more F/A-18s” and keep up the pressure on Lockheed, he added.
Hutcheson emphasized that Boeing is not proposing the Block 3 as an aircraft that could replace the joint strike fighter. The company is “offering this Block 3 Super Hornet as part of the complementary mix of capabilities interoperable with the F-35,” she said.
“The ultimate force structure mix is going to have to be determined by the Navy and DoD, and we’re just here to present the [advanced Super Hornet] solution.”
Boeing executives have had “a steady drumbeat of conversations” about the aircraft with Pentagon officials over the past year or so. But the talks have accelerated since Mattis issued his directive, Hutcheson said.
The Marine Corps, which is slated to acquire 67 F-35Cs for its carrier-based squadrons, will participate in the review ordered by Mattis, Davis said.
“My sense is we’ll probably end up validating the imperative to have [the F-35C] out there,” he said. “But we’ll have an apples-to-apples comparison. We’ll let Boeing and Lockheed basically make their case for what they think they can do.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include additional information and comments from Boeing.Photo: Navy