Home » Aviation » CNO Greenert Warns Congress of Fighter Shortfall, Boeing Super Hornet Line to Close in 2017 Absent New Orders


CNO Greenert Warns Congress of Fighter Shortfall, Boeing Super Hornet Line to Close in 2017 Absent New Orders

Two F/A-18F Super Hornets, assigned to the “Black Knights” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 154, shoot flares as they pass the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) during an airshow on Dec. 7, 2013. US Navy

Two F/A-18F Super Hornets, assigned to the “Black Knights” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 154, shoot flares as they pass the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) during an airshow on Dec. 7, 2013. US Navy

This story has been updated to include a statement about the Navy’s upcoming release of an Unfunded Requirements List.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) warned Congress of an upcoming Navy fighter shortfall just as Boeing is trying to determine whether to keep its Super Hornet and Growler production line open, setting the stage for intense talks between the service and company in the coming months about whether the Navy should and can afford to invest in additional fighters.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert explained the problem as a multifaceted one: the Navy is working to extend the life of its legacy Hornets, the Boeing F/A-18 A-D Hornet frames. “We’re finding that’s it’s very complicated and it’s harder than we imagined,” he said. So as the Navy depots keep the legacy Hornets out of commission for longer, the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets are picking up the slack and eating through flying hours faster than planned.

“So we’re taking life out of them, if you will, sooner than we wanted to,” Greenert said, even though the Navy needs the Super Hornets to stay in its airwings alongside the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter through 2040.

The Super Hornets have been further drained over the past decade with a high operational tempo in the Middle East and the fighters often acting as tankers to refuel other planes. The Navy may use its forthcoming Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft or the Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey as aerial refueling tankers to preserve the fighters’ flight hours.

The situation has created a problem for the Navy, the extent of which is still not fully understood. Greenert told reporters Tuesday that by this summer he would have the depots fully staffed and studying the ability to extend the legacy Hornets’ lives from 6,000 flight hours to 9,000 hours. After a year of this work – 15 months from now – the depots should be able to tell Greenert whether the majority of the legacy fleet could reach 9,000 hours or not.

Navy spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez said the Navy intends to extend the service life of most legacy Hornets to 9,000 flight hours, and some to 10,000 hours – though each plane comes into the depot in its own material condition, so the depot work in the coming year will help officials understand if that goal is feasible.

“If they can be extended, that really suppresses the problem. If they can’t be extended, that exacerbates the problem,” Greenert said.

For now, though, Greenert said it looks like the Navy will face a fighter shortfall of about three squadrons, or 36 jets.

One way to mitigate the shortfall is to extend the lives of the Super Hornets, which the Navy and manufacturer Boeing are beginning to study. Another way is to buy more Super Hornets.

Production Line Concerns

An undated photo of Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) of Royal Australian Air Force Hornets. Boeing Photo via Defense Industry Daily

An undated photo of Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) of Royal Australian Air Force Hornets. Boeing Photo via Defense Industry Daily

If the Navy chooses to buy more planes to help mitigate the expected shortfall, Boeing can’t wait 15 months to find out. Dan Gillian, Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet and Growler program manager, said the company must decide by mid-year if it will begin buying long lead materials for additional planes beyond what the Navy ordered in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget.

Between the 15 F/A-18G Growlers the Navy bought in FY 2015 and the “production stretch” the Navy and Boeing agreed to to slow down production from three to two planes a month, the St. Louis factory will continue working until the end of 2017.

“The key thing with all that is, we’ve got to make a decision later this year, in the middle of this year, about whether we’re going to begin the next airplanes or not,” Gillian said.
“So we talk with the Navy, we talk with our international customers or potential international customers to understand what that market space looks like, and that will help us make an informed company decision in the middle of this year.”

Denmark is seeking a new fighter and is expected to make a decision in June or July, Gillian said, and a customer in the Middle East is working towards a downselect “that could happen the second quarter, as early as the second quarter of this year.”

Other competitions, including Belgium and potentially Canada, are farther down the road, so Boeing is relying on the U.S. Navy as the main source of stability if it is to continue the production line, Gillian said.

Unfortunately for the company, it is unlikely that Congress will have completed the Navy’s budget by the summer, or even settle the matter of sequestration funding restrictions as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA).

The Navy will, however, release its Unfunded Requirements List “soon,” Hernandez, the Navy spokesman, told USNI News. The list must be sent to Congress within 45 days of the budget request release, which happened Feb. 2, and could provide additional insight about the Navy’s desire to buy more Super Hornets or Growlers.

Gillian said the company will continue to collect facts and data in the coming months before making a decision, but one factor that may sway the decision is that the Navy not only needs more Super Hornets but potentially also more Growlers, which use the same long lead materials.

“CNO has said he thinks he’s good for the U.S. Navy-only engagements, but most of the engagements we have are joint engagements,” Gillian said.
“The Growler is the jamming platform for all the services, so they’re really still looking at that joint engagement and do they have the right number of airplanes.”

Super Hornets Versus Growlers

An EA-18G Growler, assigned to the “Zappers” of Electronic Attack Squadron 130, launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) on Jan 13, 2014. US Navy Photo

An EA-18G Growler, assigned to the “Zappers” of Electronic Attack Squadron 130, launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) on Jan 13, 2014. US Navy Photo

In the longer term, a Navy decision to buy more Growlers would do the best job preserving options for Boeing and its supply chain. Gillian explained that, due to the advanced electronics needed for the Growlers’ airborne electronic attack capability, Boeing could stop making Growlers and start making Super Hornets, but it could not do the opposite without incurring additional costs.

“That’s not to say you can’t build a Growler if you stop building Growlers for a while, it’s just there’s a nonrecurring bill to get the electronics up and running again,” he said.

Still, he said a sale is a sale, and Boeing would be happy to keep the line open to produce either or both planes, if the Navy and Congress can find room in the budget to do so.

Super Hornet SLEP

First flight of the F/A-18E/F Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks and Enclosed Weapons Pod. Boeing Photo

First flight of the F/A-18E/F Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks and Enclosed Weapons Pod. Boeing Photo

While pushing for more Super Hornet sales, Boeing is also working with the Navy to determine what it would take to bring the planes from a service life of 6,000 flight hours to 9,000 flight hours, to help mitigate the fighter shortfall.

Gillian said Boeing had already looked at the parts of the plane most likely to cause problems as the planes age, and is working its way down the list of parts from most to least problematic.

“We’re getting fairly well through it, probably have another year or so to go,” he said.

He expects that the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) for the Super Hornets will go smoother than for the legacy Hornets, he noted, saying “there are obviously areas that need to be addressed, but I think we’ve seen a big improvement from classic Hornet to Super Hornet in terms of what all it would take.”

The Navy’s “flight plan” to keep the jets modern and relevant through 2040 includes not only software upgrades and increased computing capacity, but also the Infrared Search and Track (IRST) pod that will join the fleet in 2017, the Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures Block 4 with improvements for the electronic warfare self-protection suite that will be installed on Super Hornets beginning this year and legacy Hornets next year, and an enhanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.

Additionally, Boeing has invested internal research and development money on a conformal fuel tank, which would reduce drag and increase the range of the Super Hornets and Growlers.

“We’ve worked that with Northrop Grumman, we’ve done some wind tunnel testing in the last couple of weeks that helps advance that technology. We think that’s probably the closest one to becoming program of record,” Gillian said, adding it could be installed on jets as early as 2020 or 2021 if the Navy decided to begin the program in its FY 2017 budget.

As the Navy and industry begin work on the F/A-XX future fighter program, meant to replace the Super Hornets beginning in the 2030s, Gillian said Boeing’s work on the Super Hornet upgrades and backfits in the flight plan will be a good starting point.

“Those capabilities and technologies will help us develop F/A-XX, hopefully they are transferrable in some cases and relevant,” he said.

  • Joe

    Great article Megan!

  • Eric

    It would seem incredibly idiotic to let the SH line go dark when the F-35 is still years away from true operational capability. We need to keep building these aircraft as a hedge against any future slip-ups.

    • Secundius

      @ Eric.

      I disagree! The Growler can do everything the Super Hornet can, and then some. It’s more cost effective to have a Do All airframe, then to have a Do Some airframe. And you don’t waste precious space on an Aircraft Carrier…

      • Eric

        I think I was just being imprecise. I meant that it would be a mistake to stop the line altogether, which still seems to be a danger. I too would take Growlers over plain SHs if we’re not building both.

        • StealthFlyer

          And please include the conformal fuel tanks on any new Growlers or Super Hornets purchased. The extra range or time on station will definitely be useful, especially as the tanks are somewhat stealthy and don’t increase drag in most situations.

        • Curtis Conway

          Do what the Aussies did . . . build SH “Fs” with EA wiring. Convert later if needed.

      • Interested

        I wonder why the airforce does not order some growlers. Probably because they invested heavily in the F35 ?

        • Secundius

          @ Interested.

          Great question, would make a Excellent Wild Weasel candidate. But must likely reason is F-16D’s or F-15E’s are already filling that role…

  • CharleyA

    Yup, good read.

    “As the Navy and industry begin work on the F/A-XX future fighter program, meant to replace the Super Hornets beginning in the 2030s, Gillian said Boeing’s work on the Super Hornet upgrades and backfits in the flight plan will be a good starting point.

    “Those capabilities and technologies will help us develop F/A-XX, hopefully they are transferrable in some cases and relevant,” he said.”

    Little known, or perhaps forgotten is that some of the technology designed for Boeing’s losing entry in the JSF program ended up in Super Hornets – which are flying now.

    • Curtis Conway

      And and lot of GFE from JSF will go into Gen 6.

  • RunningBear

    Throughout the article it isn’t clear if the
    “Gap” is in reference to the tasking of the Hornet or the Super
    Hornet. The Hornet is being replaced by the JSF. If the “Gap” is
    identified as the tasks set for the Hornet, then the acceleration of production
    of the JSF would be indicated. If the “Gap” is for the tasks set for
    the Super Hornet, then a study should be set to determine if additional JSFs
    should fill these functions or to produce additional Super Hornets. LM should
    have the capability to advance the additions to the production lines as they
    will be required to produce the AF JSFs in the immediate future. Also, the
    delivery from the Italian JSF FACO could also be expanded, as the expansion
    will be required for the existing foreign orders for the JSF.

    With the development of the F/A-XX the Navy is continuing
    to “Leap Frog” the two a/c types, Sbug and JSF. Where the ample
    numbers of the earlier technology is relegated to “scut” work and the
    fewer advance technology is used as a supervisor/ coordinating function. As
    these roles continue to swap the numbers of each a/c required to fill the tasks
    must be planned for the progress of the transitions.

    • Secundius

      @ RunningBear.

      A far as I’ve been able to piece together, the GAP applies ot a Aircraft “Shortfall” through too 2018. In the case of the USAF, only 186 F-22A Raptors were built and ~250-Legacy Fighters are about to be retired (8,000 to 10,000-Flight Hour’s). The USN, is ~125-Fighters and ~69-Support Aircrafts, the USMC ~114-Aircrafts. The USN is trying to acquire ~129-Aircrafts and the USMC ~114-Aircrafts. In either cases for the Navy or the Marine Corps, it doesn’t specify on either the F/A-18 Super Hornet or the F/A-35 or F/AV-35 Lightning II’s airframes…

    • Secundius

      @ RunningBear.

      As a Follow-Up, the USAF is getting a ~$7.6-Billion USD. Electronics Upgrade on there F-15C Eagles and F-15E Strike Eagles…

      • Curtis Conway

        More trons in the air mean greater effect on adversarial radar. The F-15s need their [defensive] IDECM upgrade, but the additional EA-18Gs help us hedge our bets with the adversaries radar coverage when the time comes.

        • Secundius

          @ Curtis Conway.

          What’s your “take” on the Northrop-Grumman ASQ-236 Ku-band AESA Radar Pods…

          • Curtis Conway

            Gotta get MADL going. If it works well, we will be victorious.

          • Secundius

            @ Curtis Conway.

            I agree, get one of those on every hardpoint, on every aircraft that can carry one. NIRVANA…

          • Curtis Conway

            I gave you a long answer . . . and the sensors aren’t letting it through. I have been out of the game for nearly 20 years and I was NEVER “TS”. However, I do have the vision.

          • Secundius

            @ Curtis Conway.

            I know the feeling, I’ve been Reddit’d so many times that I’ve Lost Count…

  • vincedc

    You would think that after three and a half decades of flying these airframes, the Navy would have a better handle on how they wear out. This looks like a press release to pressure Congress to commit to the Boeing Full Employment Project. I can understand the need for the ECM aircraft, and maybe the tankers, but it is time to cut the F/A requirement loose, and look forward.

    • Curtis Conway

      We are talking about naval platforms in a very corrosive environment. Every iteration of airframe has a new solution to that corrosion, that sometimes does not work out as well as projected, as in this case, we find out as they crack open the Legacy Hornets, as they go through rework. All areas in the aircraft are not accessible for inspection until you go to Depot and open them up. THAT is what happened.

    • Secundius

      @ vincedc.

      The Good thing about planet Earth is, we have Multiple Environments. The Bad thing about planet Earth is, we have Multiple Environments. What works in one place, usually doesn’t in another. The Oceans are the Worst, too many unknown variable to contend with…

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    Another casualty of having multiple air forces under DOD. Everyone wants the status quo to remain, propping up antiquated crumbling military empires, which have not decisively won a war since WWII, so as a U.S. Citizen Tax Payer, I have to ask, “What have you done for me lately, besides punch holes in the sky playing Top Gun?” You cannot claim to do it IOT ensure my freedoms, because they are slowly but surely being chipped away by the minute. It is time to put a halt to the uncontrolled military wasteful/redundant spending & place an adult in charge of the military’s allowance. 1. We DO NOT need multiple Fixed-wing Air Forces, when One Fixed Wing Air Force (USAF), covering all of the separate missions, would be able to fulfill the functional area role. 2. The Navy needs to concentrate on surface & sub-surface platforms. 3. The Navy needs to provide adequate MEU naval platforms for the USMC to deploy MEUs x 5. 4. The USAF can absorb all of the fixed wing assets from the other services, consolidate training at fewer less locations & still fulfill all of the Fixed-wing missions required. 5. Time to re-organize the continuously dysfunctional “Too-large” military that the U.S. public no longer desires, streamline the services into functional area branches (1-Conventional Ground Force, 1-Fixed-wing Air Force, 1- Naval Force, 1-Special Operations Force w/the USMC under it as their Amphibious Special Operations Force deploying on MEUs only x 5.

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  • Secundius

    FYI:

    Russia has Cancelled it’s Antonov An-70 program. Russia’s version of the Airbus A400M Atlas. Apparently they can’t afford it anymore, I wonder why…

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  • Secundius

    According to DID, F/A-18C/D’s equipped with the AN/APG-79 AESA/APAP may get a 20-year extension on their lifespan in service…

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