Super Hornet Service Life Extension to Commence as Early as 2017
By Allyson Versprille
The Navy will have to begin a service life extension program on its fleet of F/A-18 E and F Super Hornets as early as 2017 because of delays fielding the joint strike fighter, the service's top aviation official said Aug. 12.
"Our first Super Hornets are getting to 6,000 hours probably at the end of next year so that's the place where we'll start opening them up and we'll do what we call a service life assessment program," said Navy Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, the commander of naval air forces and the naval air force for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The assessment will determine what needs to be repaired so fixes can be standardized as best as possible across the fleet, Shoemaker said.
He described a domino effect where delays fielding the Navy's F-35 variant has led to increased flight hours for the service's legacy jet fighters.
"We're in this situation for a number of reasons," Shoemaker said during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "We've delayed the initial introduction of the F-35C from the Navy side — in fact, it's about almost seven years from when we planned an [initial operating] capability — and so that forced us to keep our classic" Hornets in the fleet longer.
However, refurbishing the Hornets has proven more difficult than officials first imagined, and while they are out of commission, the service's Super Hornets are taking up the slack and exhausting their flight hours at an accelerated pace, he said.
The assessment program for the Super Hornets has been funded and is ongoing, Shoemaker said. The Navy plans to receive assistance from the Super Hornet's manufacturer Boeing during the initial assessment for aircraft that have reached the 6,000-hour mark.
Following the assessment, the aircraft will enter the extension program. "I would imagine in 2017 or 18 we'll start into it with our most utilized Rhinos [Super Hornets]," he said.
The service is learning from problems it encountered during the service life extension of its legacy Hornets, F/A-18 A-D, Shoemaker noted. In March, Naval Air Systems Command announced that it was awarding a contract to Boeing for Phase 3 of the SLEP with the goal of extending the service life of the Hornets to 10,000 flight hours.
The capacity of the depots is improving and the service has learned how to increase throughput as it refurbishes the legacy Hornets. Those lessons will be applied to the Super Hornet extension program, Shoemaker said.
The goal will be to have only a quarter of the Super Hornets in the depot at any time, he said. Taking lessons learned from the Hornet extension program — in addition to what Boeing finds out during its initial assessment — he hoped will lead to more Super Hornets being available.
Extending the service life of legacy platforms is also important to the Marine Corps, said Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for Marine Corps aviation.
"You have to take care of the Harrier and the classic F-18 in order make your transition to the F-35," he said. "It’s a strategic imperative for the Marine Corps to take good care of these airplanes."
The service, which declared initial operating capability for a squadron of F-35B joint strike fighters in July, has a long way to go before the aircraft reaches its final form. Additional capability will be added to the joint strike fighter in 2017 with the installation of software update 3F. In the meantime, extending the life of legacy platforms will ease the transition to the F-35, Davis said.