Without New Orders, Boeing's F/A-18 Line Will Shut Down Within Two Years

By Dan Parsons

U.S. Navy procurement of the E/A-18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft ends in fiscal year 2014, and Boeing expects to deliver existing orders of Super Hornets and Growlers as early as 2016. 

The Navy did not allocate funds for future procurement of the aircraft in its fiscal year 2015 budget request to Congress. Unless more orders are placed, The Boeing Co. will have to shutter the F/A-18 production line within two years, a company executive said April 7.

The service did put 22 Growlers on its wish list of unfunded procurement requests, part of the military’s $26 billion “opportunity, security and growth initiative.”

“With those 22 Growlers, we can keep the [production] line open until 2017," said Mike Gibbons, vice president of F/A and E/A-18 programs for Boeing. Gibbons briefed reporters on the program at the 2014 SeaAirSpace conference at National Harbor, Md.

“The end of 2016 is what we have without the 22 Growlers, “ he said.

Though reports have suggested Boeing would slow down delivery of current orders for the aircraft in its various iterations, Gibbons said there was no plan to lengthen the current schedule, which runs through 2014.  The company also will not preemptively close production lines in order to shave cost, he said.

The company’s St. Louis-based production facility also builds F-15 Strike Eagles for the Air Force.

The F/A-18, the Navy’s primary carrier-based aircraft, is competing for funding with the F-35 joint strike fighter that is still in development. But as that aircraft continues to suffer delays, Boeing and Navy officials plan to stretch the service life of the F/A-18 in its many variants.

Growlers are seen as complementing the F-35. The aircraft carry sophisticated electronic warfare equipment that can find and disrupt enemy communications and radar. It also is meant to provide targeting data and other vital information to JSF and other fighters during battle.

“Growler is a necessary complement to the F-35 in the future,” Gibbons said. “It is the only aircraft that has full-spectrum capability.”

The Navy has identified a need for more aircraft with electronic warfare capabilities and Pentagon officials have stressed the need for the inclusion of EW equipment on current and future aircraft.

An exercise called Trident Warrior, hosted by the Navy last year, demonstrated the strategic need for increasing the F/A-18’s ability to perform electronic warfare and other upgrades, said Navy Capt. Frank Morley, F/A-18 program manager..

“Trident warrior is an example of the calculus that is ongoing,” he said. “We found out you could use a lot of them. That’s what is behind the unfunded list.”

Negotiations are nearing completion on a 12-Growler order from Australia, said Morley. With a fleet of 24, that nation is the only country other than the United States that owns F/A-18s.

Growlers provide a large piece of what the Navy calls the “blue kill chain,” which consists of finding, identifying and providing targeting information on enemy positions and weapons, Morley said.

The Navy wants to have more Growlers in each carrier air wing. The additional 22 aircraft would allow the service to increase the number of E/A-18Gs from five to seven per squadron, Morley said.

Earlier versions of the F/A-18, designated models A through D, are nearing the end of their 8,000-hour service lives, Morley said. A life extension program is underway to extend their service by at least another 1,000 hours. The A-D models are expected to be in use through at least 2030, Morley said.

“The long-term usage is with the Marine Corps,” he said. “The bulk of the fleet is hitting 8,000 flight hours over the next several years. Keeping them until 2030 is the plan right now.

More than 100 aircraft have undergone the overhaul and systems upgrades and returned to active service, he added.  A service life assessment program for the Super Hornet is underway to keep them viable through 9,000 flight hours.  Boeing also is pitching a suite of modular additions to the existing fleet that would extend their range and capabilities.

The so-called Advanced Super Hornet is seen as a way to give a cost-conscious Navy options in upgrading its F/A-18s for high-end warfare. The add-ons include an updated digital cockpit, conformal fuel tanks and an exterior weapons pod.

Morley said the Navy is considering a new General Electric engine, but no program of record is on the horizon.

Bob Kornegay, business development senior manager for the F/A-18 and E/A-18, previously told National Defense that installing all of the available upgrades would cost around $10 million per aircraft.

When asked what the Navy expects to pay for the upgrades, if desired, Morley declined to comment given ongoing budget negotiations on Capitol Hill. He also said that the Navy could pick and choose which upgrades to purchase. Therefore the price per aircraft could vary, he said.

Because the additions are modular and retrofittable, it gives decision makers in the Navy and Congress options on what to fund, Morley said.

Both Boeing and the Navy are counting on foreign military sales to help decrease the per-aircraft cost of the F/A-18, he said. Foreign nations also are being offered the upgrade package and Growler variant.

Topics: Aviation

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