Boeing Confident in Production of Super Hornet Beyond 2017
By Allyson Versprille
As Boeing continues discussions with both foreign and domestic customers, a company executive said he is confident that international demand and a strong desire for the aircraft by the U.S. Navy will push production of Super Hornets and Growlers past 2017.
The Navy did not request funding for Super Hornets in its fiscal year 2016 budget proposal. However, in March the service solicited Congress for additional aircraft in its unfunded priorities list. Lawmakers are still deciding whether or not to fund those 12 aircraft, worth $1.15 billion.
In the document, the Navy stated “our legacy strike fighters (F/A-18A-D) are reaching end of life faster than planned due to use and wear. Improving the inventory of F/A-18F and F-35C aircraft will help reconcile a near term (2018-2020) strike fighter inventory capacity challenge, and longer term (2020-2035) strike fighter model balance within the carrier air wing. It will reduce our reliance on legacy-model aircraft which are becoming increasingly expensive and less reliable.”
Daniel Gillian, vice president of F/A-18 and EA-18G programs for Boeing Defense, said he is optimistic that the House and Senate Armed Services Committees — as well as defense appropriations subcommittees — will support the push for more Super Hornets.
"I think near-term FY16 a lot of the momentum is behind Super Hornet and the committees that mark down Super Hornet, [and] we see that holding up," he said.
There are also positive signs from Kuwait, where discussions on purchasing the aircraft are currently taking place, he told reporters.
"Ongoing discussions in the Middle East are certainly moving forward and we're confident that we're moving towards something there, along with [the] FY16" Navy requests, Gillian said. "We're seeing enough demand signals from the market to make a decision to continue moving forward with production."
In May, Reuters reported that the deal with Kuwait would involve 28 Boeing Super Hornets and would total more than $3 billion. Such a deal would keep the company's mixed-model Super Hornet and Growler production line in Saint Louis, Missouri, open until 2019, Gillian said.
"Currently production with the 15 Growlers from last year that were added in FY15, goes through December 2017," he said. If the company lands both Kuwait and the 12 planes for the U.S. Navy, production will be pushed out to the fall of 2019.
There are also opportunities in Denmark, which is currently seeking to procure a new fighter jet. Boeing is proposing 24 to 36 of the two-seat variant of the Super Hornet, Gillian said. The company faces competition from Lockheed Martin's F-35 joint strike fighter. Denmark is expected to make a downselect decision in the fourth quarter of this year. Such a sale — in addition to the aforementioned opportunities — would extend production through 2021, Gillian said.
Canada and Belgium are two other possibilities for Super Hornet sales, he noted.
In Canada, the issue is whether the nation will pursue an election that results in a change in government, he said. "We think a change in government would lead to a potential discussion about a competition. Right now, they're on a path to the F-35."
Belgium is following Denmark's decision but a downselect would be years away, Gillian added.
Boeing is in the process of slowing down production of the aircraft in coming years from three per month — its current rate — to two per month in the first quarter of next calendar year, he said.
He stressed the importance of future Super Hornet sales for the company, especially within the United States.
"I think the 12 planes are particularly important in the context of the Super Hornet shortfall that the CNO [chief of naval operations] discussed in his testimony," he said. In April, Adm. Jonathan Greenert said the Navy has a "Super Hornet shortfall" of at least two or three squadrons — the equivalent of 24 to 36 aircraft.
"The Super Hornet is truly the workhorse of naval combat operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," Greenert said before the House Armed Services Committee. "It is an absolutely critical, in-demand weapon against our enemies."
Gillian said keeping production lines open is also essential on an international level. "It's important because it's part of a bigger discussion and it allows the international market to continue to develop a lot of the discussion about Growler force structure."
The company wants to continue employing the team it has in place, he said. "It is certainly important to Boeing for continuing to employ the team that we have with all of the skills they have to continue building an airplane that can land on an aircraft carrier, which is a unique and perishable skill set."