WASHINGTON, D.C. — The total of 80 Super Hornets the Navy is set to buy over the next five years could grow based on the findings of the Pentagon’s ongoing and overarching national defense strategy review, acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told USNI News on Thursday following a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Earlier this week, naval aviation leaders confirmed that the service was set to buy 80 of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as part of a five-year $7.1 billion outlay.
This time last year the Department of the Navy was set to zero out the F/A-18E/F line as the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter was coming online and the service pursues the Next Generation Air Dominance replacement for the Super Hornets.
However, a combination of the intense operational use of current aircraft and unpleasant discoveries during the Navy’s service life extension program (SLEP) for the F/A-18 A-D Hornet program pushed the new buy, Stackley said.
“What we discovered was that they’re in worse shape than we had planned and estimated so we’re turning them faster was more of a challenge than we forecasted. We were discovering a lot more weren’t going to make it to the fleet. Some of these were just going to be attrited,” he said.
“So when we look ahead to the Super Hornet, we’re packing that planning up front and better so that we’re better positioned for the throughput but when you do the math in terms of how many Super Hornets will be out of reporting in the depots then we have to have some mitigator in terms of additional aircraft to meet our fleet replacement… If you do that math and all of the modeling assumptions and you add from what you learned off of the legacy F-18 SLEP program, we concluded that we needed about 80 additional aircraft to insure that we get through this period of time in better shape than what we’re experiencing now with the legacies.”
Richardson said the decision to plan for the additional aircraft instead of zeroing out the line was made also in part due to the ongoing demand for the aircraft in operational theaters — particular over Syria and Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
“It’s a very dynamic environment. Stuff happens and the world gets a vote and right now the Super Hornet is a very capable strike fighter aircraft and is doing great work for us right now,” Richardson said.
“We’re working with industry to see if we can modernize it some and make it even more capable so it can be the plane that mitigates these emerging types of world situations.”
The modernization effort, dubbed Block III, is set to be funded starting in FY 2018 as part of a $264.9 million over the next five years to improve the characteristics of the Super Hornet.
While Boeing has offered a variety of options for the Block III effort, USNI News understands the bulk of the money will be used to fund additional conformal fuel tanks. The tanks fit along the fuselage and can extend the range of a Super Hornet by 120 nautical miles, Boeing officials told USNI News in May.
That total of 80 Super Hornet fighters could grow yet again following the Secretary of Defense James Mattis led review of the national defense strategy that will inform the Fiscal Year 2019 budget and set the agenda for a Trump Administration Pentagon.
Earlier this week, when asked by SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) the status of the strategy Mattis told McCain, “We’re working it.”