Home » Aviation » Navy Wants to Buy 80 More Super Hornets for $7.1B Over the Next Five Years

Navy Wants to Buy 80 More Super Hornets for $7.1B Over the Next Five Years

Airman Michael Nywair signals that an F/A-18E Super Hornet from the Argonauts of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147 is ready aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) on June 7, 2017. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Navy intends to buy at least 80 more Boeing F/A-18E-F Super Hornets over the next five years to address its fighter shortfall, a change from its previous on-the-books plan to zero out the aircraft program beginning next year, service officials said in congressional testimony today.

The Navy’s written testimony to the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee notes the “Fiscal Year 2018 President’s Budget requests $1.25 billion in [the Navy’s aircraft procurement account] for 14 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft” and that, “with the support of Congress, we will also procure a minimum of 80 additional Super Hornets across the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) and continue modernization plans to address continuing warfighter demand for advanced tactical aircraft. These additional procurements begin to mitigate the decline in [the Department of the Navy’s] strike fighter inventory and enable older aircraft to be pulled from service for mid-life upgrades and rework to extend their service life.”

Though the services typically include in their budget requests a five-year projection of spending plans, this year Pentagon officials told reporters during the budget rollout that any out-year numbers were speculative and in many cases simply maintained current program levels. They said an ongoing defense strategy review would inform future year needs and render any current projections moot – and the Navy, as a result, took the FYDP projections out of its budget highlights book but not from its more detailed justification documents.

“The (defense) secretary has not spent any time at all looking at anything beyond FY ’18,” John Roth, performing the duties of under secretary of defense, comptroller, told reporters during the budget rollout.
“You will not see a growth in force structure. You will not see a growth in the shipbuilding plan. You will not see a robust modernization program in the so-called current FYDP. And so therefore I caution anybody from trying to make any comparisons. And I’m actually of the school that it really doesn’t provide anything that’s particularly insightful.”

However, the Navy’s testimony today confirms the plans within its aviation procurement justification documents – that the service wants to buy 14 in 2018 for $1.25 billion , 23 in 2019 for $1.95 billion, 14 in 2020 for $1.35 billion and 14 in 2021 for $1.27 billion and 15 in 2022 for $1.28 billion.

In contrast, the FY 2017 budget request included 14 aircraft in 2018, as was requested last month, and then zero for the rest of the years of the FYDP.

Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden , commander, Naval Surface Forces Pacific, observes flight quarters on amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) on Nov. 19, 2016. US Navy Photo

Many have speculated that future F/A-18 procurement would be a signal of the Navy moving away from the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lighting II carrier variant Joint Strike Fighter. President Donald Trump’s December 2016 tweet pitting the two airframes against one another only increased speculation – as did Defense Secretary James Mattis’ subsequent memo ordering a review of the two aircraft and the ability to add improvements to the Super Hornet to make it comparable to the Joint Strike Fighter.

At the SASC hearing today, Navy Director of Air Warfare (OPNAV N98) Rear Adm. DeWolfe Miller made clear that the Navy would not be choosing between the two.

“I get the question a lot, tell me about this F-35 versus F-18. And I say, it’s not a versus. The complementary nature of both these aircraft in the future for our Navy, our aircraft carrier Navy, is very exciting.”

At the hearing, Miller, Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, and Naval Air Systems Command commander Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags agreed the F-35C and B development and fielding were going along well.

For the Marine Corps, which is already operating its short takeoff and landing variant overseas, the cost of operating the aircraft has proven to be less than predicted. Davis said the Marines still hired an outside firm to work with the service, airplane manufacturer Lockheed Martin and engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney to identify even more cost savings in operating and maintaining the F-35Bs.

“Right now it’s costing me a heck of a lot of money to fly the legacy airplanes and get readiness out of them,” Davis said, but “the F-35 has got a high readiness rate for us right now; also too we’re working at driving cost per flight hour down and the [operations and sustainment] costs out.”

“We have a winner on our hands,” he said and added that the Marine Corps would share lessons learned with the Navy and Air Force to help reduce costs for operating the F-35A and C models as well.

An F-35C Lightning II carrier variant, assigned to the Salty Dogs of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, performs a touch-and-go landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73). US Navy Photo

The F-35C is still awaiting the 3F software upgrade before beginning final test and evaluation and working towards reaching initial operational capability. Grosklags said at the hearing that “in terms of the (software) development process, we’re on very solid ground.”

“As we want to get to the final 3F software configuration before we introduce the aircraft in the Navy, we’re very closely watching the stability. And we have seen over the last year to 18 months the in-flight stability go from where they were having to system-reset or having to do something with the system in-flight from about every five hours, to the most recent software release is about every 40 hours, which is more than acceptable for us right now,” he said.

Miller said that early shipboard testing of the F-35C with previous software increments already looked promising. After about 150 carrier landings, the F-35C has seen a 100-percent rate of successfully landing on the carrier, with none of them catching the first of four arresting wires, which is typically the most dangerous of the four to catch.

“It was a dream to bring aboard,” Miller said. On the plane’s capability, he said “the fact that we’re getting super-sonic stealth, data fusion, the sensor-netting that this airplane is going to be able to provide, it adds capability, lethality and survivability, not just to the air wing but to the entire carrier strike group – the way we integrate it with our Aegis ships and our Baseline 9 configuration, the way we fight it alongside our .. E-2D [Advnaced Hawkeyes] and with the capability of a [EA-18G] Growler.”

  • @USS_Fallujah

    This is great news, assuming they stick to the request and congress obliges. I’d be interested to see where this plus the boost in O&M funds for depots, parts etc projects the total available aircraft numbers over the next 15 years. Even with the expedited rollout of the MQ-25A program we’ll still be abusing our airframes if we continue to put a band aid on the fighter gap.

    • USNVO

      I would be willing to bet any new SHs will be used to replace all the Block Is. That will simultaneously do several things.
      1. Increase capability and commonality as the they can’t be upgraded to Block II or III.
      2. Save a fortune on O&M and depot since you get rid of a huge cost to extend the early SHs by only 3000hrs or so.
      3. Get abns immediate readiness boost.
      4. Cover up the fact that the Navy has been flying their fleet into the ground and shorting maintenance since the 90s.

      So spend $40+ million on a old broken down Block I to get 3000 more hours or buy a shiny new Block II/III with all the latest stuff already upgraded to 9000hrs for only twice as much. Notice no one is talking about what SH SLEP is going to cost even though they have been studying the problem for well over a year and should have a pretty good idea now. Coincidence, I think not.

      But they can only do that if they keep the line open because once it’s closed that’s it.

      • @USS_Fallujah

        Does this take into account that legacy hornets are either grounded or the 21st century version of the Brewster Buffalo?

        • USNVO

          There are only a few squadrons of legacy hornets left, 3 USN and the 5 USMC CVW squadrons. The F-18C has the same avionics as the Block I SHs and besides the range and payload limitations, it is considered equal or superior in every area.

          Come on, the Buffalo gets a bad rap but it was not a bad aircraft, it was pretty much equal with the early Wildcat. The pilots did not have a clue how to fight against the Zero so they were shot down in droves, but that was pretty much the same thing as the F4F, P-39, P-40, etc.

          Against the Soviet Air Force from 1941-1944 the Buffalo had a 26:1 kill ratio and many of the top Finnish aces preferred it to the Bf-109 even with the spare parts issues.

  • Curtis Conway

    Good move, and I would tend to make half (if not all) F/A-18Fs with the EA-18G wiring installed. Our Carrier Strike Groups need a dedicated tanker for safety and support operations, particularly in Blue Water Operations in the Pacific. It could be a multi-mission platform, but having capable tanking capabilities should definitely be a requirement. Anything with that much lift, space, and persistence can obviously support all kinds of mission sets in the Air Wing. The space is on deck, and the airframes are in the desert. We should make the KC-3A Super Viking happen. Put them in the VRC Squadrons and support both coasts.

  • RTColorado

    Well, those of us with a longer memory (and a sick sense of humor) remember when the CNO issued a Navy wide ban on a T-shirt. The T-shirt had a silhouette of an F-4 being lifted out of the water by a crane, the front of the T-shirt read “Fly Navy” and on the back with the silhouette it read ” …the divers need the work”. The US Navy has lost 18 F-18 fighters in this fiscal year alone…none to combat actions.

    • Matthew Schilling

      Hornets or Super Hornets lost?

      • RTColorado

        I’m not sure..I would guess it’s a mix, but I don’t really know.

  • B2

    “Wolfy”- Some advice. Stay away from the USMC and their F-35B when discussing Naval Carrier Aviation. Let that dude Davis play shill for LM… We ain’t joined at the hip with them re aviation- they have their own agenda and it is not the US Navy’s interests. It is their own.

    Of course those who know carrier aviation all of this talk below/above is only doable IF the MQ-25 is really being taken seriously vice morphing into a Sci-Fair project like most unmanned B.S. has historically… Why is that? Because 25 of the 80 SuperHornets discussed above will be nothing more than 5 wet overhead and recovery tankers for themselves and the thirsty F-35C (if it passes OT that is)….

  • Ron8200

    How did the price of the Super Hornets go from $55M to $89M? What sense does it make to build one or two planes a month? IF they want 80 planes build 80 planes to spread them over 5 years is nuts.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      They haven’t been that cheap for some time.
      That isn’t a bad price for the world’s best naval strike fighter.
      You are right about the time line.
      According to the Navy themselves, their own attrition is double the 16 units per year proposed above.

      • john

        You are correct. It is impossible to bring down production costs when building 14 planes a rear. The F-35 build rate is now about 75 planes a year and climbing. I personally wonder why the Navy would not just bulk order the far superior F-35 and drive down unit costs to under $100 million dollars.

        • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

          The Lightning-C is a couple of years from being ready & any that are in the fleet before then will have to be modified to bring them up to the starting standard.

          Once it goes IOC in 2019 I’m sure the Navy will up the buy-rate considerably.

          In the mean time there will still be enormous demand for new Shornets.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            Important to note the USN intentionally decided to go last on JSF production, allowing the USAF & USMC to pay for the bulk of the development LRIP aircraft with early software installed. The F-35C will have a must faster ramp up time than those services because they’ll be buying aircraft ready to go without needing new software backfits down the road. the cost is delaying the introduction of the JSF to the fleet, which the USN is obviously fine with since it buys them time to procure more SHs to (hopefully) close the existing fighter gap before they start purchasing the more expensive aircraft (though the cost gap between the two is slowly narrowing).

          • Blain Shinno

            I will believe it when I see it. Money for SHs means less money for F-35s. The Air Force traded airframes for future F-35 airframes. The fly away costs of the A model are dropping below $100m, making the jet more affordable. Let’s compare the AF’s inventory of F-35s with the Navy when the C finally begins to arrive in the fleet.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            That’s not really true, the F-35C procurement is following pretty close to the same glide path as before, but they’re adding in SHs to the budget request plan because legacy aircraft are used up and the existing SH are burning through their service life much faster than expected. Adding that to the terrible O&M/Depot issues and you have an enormous “Fighter Gap” that can’t be filled with F-35C without huge additions to the budget request AND accepting a significant increase in the programmatic risk associated with the F-35C as well as additional cost later to upgrade the LRP F-35Cs software as what the navy wants to buy isn’t ready for purchase yet.

        • CharleyA

          Maybe because the F-35C is not far superior than the Super Hornet?

        • USNVO

          There are several problems but the biggest is people.

          Buying SHs is painless, you stick them into a squadron already in existence and they can be used immediately to make up the shortfall for all the hanger queens and planes stuck waiting for depot work.

          But, when you buy an F-35C, you have to take away a squadron, retrain all the personnel which can easily take two years or more, and then bring them back up to readiness. And there are no extra bodies lying around ready to be F-35 dudes. Today, unlike during the 80s when the fleet was expanding, it is a much more difficult problem. And this is on top of the P-3 to P-8 transition also in progress as well as the RQ-4C. You will notice that the F-35C transition pretty much is scheduled to begin after the EA-6B to EF-18G transition.

          So the personnel part of the introduction of the F-35C has to be planned out years in advance because no one gives you more personnel. So dramatically ramping up F-35C production, even if it was possible in terms of production capacity, is largely impossible for the Navy. The USAF (A-10 anyone) and USMC have similar problems with their versions. This also goes a long way to explain why the idea to bring back the A-6, S-3, or other platform de jour is so laughable.

          Why do you think the Navy was willing to pay an extra $5 billion or so for the FORD? Because it saves close to a thousand really hard to find bodies.

          • Blain Shinno

            Fill the decks with something else. USMC F-35Bs, Hornets, etc. Easy solution. Or deploy with one less squadron. Its not like anyone blew a gasket when the CVWs went from 60 fighters/attack jets to what it is now.

  • seamarshal

    Lets get back to talking about the F18/E and F’s: Here’s the breakdown on costs:
    2018: 89.285 M each
    2019: 84.78 M each
    2020: 96.4 M each
    2021: 90.7 M each
    2022: 85.3 M each

    Can someone explain why the price jumps up in 2020 and 2021 when it should be going down since the Navy’s buying more FA18’s? President should renegotiate these costs since he seems to be the only one that can get Boeing and others to reduce their prices. Also, cut the purchase of the F35s 50% at least until all the FA18’s are purchased. That would pay for the 80 FA18’s with money to spare!

    • CharleyA

      I cannot speak directly to why the GWSC you reference rises then falls without analyzing several areas of the budget, but it has to do with variable support costs. The URF / Flyaway cost for the Super Hornet are:

      2016: $61.5M
      2017: $70.5M
      2018: $68.9M
      2019: $70.0M
      2020: $74.6M
      2021: $76.1M
      2022: $77.3M

      GWSC is the unit amount appropriated by Congress to fund aircraft purchases. Flyaway is a subset of those costs, closely tied to the cost to produce (but not to deliver and support) an aircraft – famously used by the JSF program to understate the cost of the F-35. The Flyaway costs above are indexed for predicted inflation (and are reassessed in subsequent budgets,) and the GWSC cost is both indexed and variable due to changing numbers of supporting facilities and equipment bought in single budget years. FY 2018 Flyaway / URF is slightly less than the previous year due to savings accrued from advance materials procurement made in FY17. The big jump in Super Hornet cost happened between FY16 and FY17, reflecting increased costs to initiate Block III.

      • seamarshal

        Thanks for the explanation. I don’t understand all that but I’m sure I’m not the only one. The increased cost in later years might be due to inflation, but as the Navy buys more of these I would think they should get a break. Can the Donald help?

  • seamarshal

    The problem is $$$$. You can’t pay for 80 aircraft over 1-2 years unless you cut spending on other programs. The Navy is not willing to do that. Remember, they want more subs!

    • @USS_Fallujah

      It’s actually over 5 years, and the issue with buying more subs is that the shipyards are already strained trying to continue delivering 2 SSNs a year with the SSBN procurements starting.
      Ultimately the costs of the additional SHs is manageable inside the likely budget envelope, which is (IMO) why Mattis demanded the current FY budget request focus on O&M funds to restore the current fleet (ships & aircraft) before amping up the shipbuilding and aircraft procurement accounts.

      • seamarshal

        I know it’s over 5 years. I was replying to someone that said it should be much sooner or what’s the use of buying them. He must be out of touch with something.

      • USNVO

        The other reason is that Congress will always add money for procurement of shiny new toys, especially from their districts, but they will never add a dime to O&M.

        • @USS_Fallujah

          They need to do a better job leveraging the work of subcontractors/suppliers to lobby congressman from outside the shipyard’s district for increased/sustained O&M funds.

  • Dean M.

    An excellent move. Carrier Strike Groups need to remain force capable for the foreseeable future. Incorporating the the F-35’s into the operational plan gives the Navy more flexibility and a stealth option.

  • hollygreen9

    Bring back the A6 Intruder. That old bird could carry a lot of bombs and also every weapons system in the arsenal. We in the attack community used to call the Hornets ” LAWN DARTS”. Their range sucks, and their payload also.

  • Blain Shinno

    The USN needs to cut the cord on the SHs. It was a fine solution when they screwed up the A-12 and needed something to fill deck spaces when they retired the A-6s and F-14s.

    But its time to go all in on the F-35C and drive the cost down like the USAF.

  • TomcatJoe

    Davis lost some credibility with me with this one “Right now it’s costing me a heck of a lot of money to fly the legacy airplanes and get readiness out of them,” Davis said, but “the F-35 has got a high readiness rate for us right now; also too we’re working at driving cost per flight hour down and the [operations and sustainment] costs out.”

    So….new airplanes cost less to maintain than old ones. That’s pretty much always the case, but just like an old car, you can buy a LOT of maintenance for the $40K (or $100M) that a new car/airplane is going to cost. Also, maintenance costs are tied to maintenance hours/flight hour, which are directly tied to how well you have spared your aircraft and how well you have planned and funded your planned maintenance cycles. IMO that is an area that we traditionally cheap out on (probably because contractors underestimate in order to bring down total program price). The end result is we get jets that are low maintenance for a few years, but when things start wearing out we find we have under-spared, which leads to cannibalization, which drives maintenance hours through the roof. I guarantee that when F-35 hits mid-life the cost of maintaining composite structures and restoring RCS is not going to be cheap.

  • Marjus Plaku

    if there is a shortfall the F-35C is too uncertain in terms of production rates and IOC fielding to rely on filling the gap. I know it is a 4th gen and will always remain so, but 6 squadrons worth of new Super Hornet Block IIIs is not a bad move if you can get the money. Let the F-35C continue at its pace without holding your breath for it to be mass produced and rushed into naval service because of an otherwise significant aircraft shortfall, that can be addressed by more F-18 buys.

  • Lightning Bolt 665

    I think a lot of people believe that the F-35 was meant to replace all hornet variants. That’s not true. The F-35 was meant to replace the legacy hornets while complementing the super hornets. Just liked me how the super hornets replaced the F-14 and supplanted the legacy hornets. The F-35 and super hornet were never designed to compete. They were designed to work together. 😀