CAPITOL HILL – The Navy’s request to end the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet production line after 2021 instead of signing another multiyear production contract was not to save money, but rather to allow manufacturer Boeing to convert the production line from building new planes to overhauling old ones at a rate of 40 per year.
The Navy is managing a shifting fighter fleet, which today only sends fourth-generation Super Hornets on deployments but by next year will begin its transition into a blend of fourth- and fifth-gen fighters, once the first squadron of F-35C Joint Strike Fighters heads out with the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group.
Navy acquisition chief James Geurts said today that the best way to support the ideal mix of F-18s and F-35s was to stop buying Super Hornets after the current contract ends in Fiscal Year 2021 and to focus instead on getting as many as possible per year through the Service Life Modification (SLM) program. SLM not only adds thousands of flying hours to the planes’ lives but also upgrades them to the new Block III configuration with that adds stealth, range, weapons-carrying capacity and advanced connectivity.
“Most of the parts of the aircraft aren’t built on the production line, it’s assembly; so we’re going to see a large transference of that skill and expertise as we take airplanes apart and service life extend them,” he told USNI News after a House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee hearing, adding that he wanted the same experts that assembled new planes to re-assemble the older ones after they were taken apart for new components to be adding in for the life extension and capability upgrade program.
“And also part of that is modifying those from Block II to Block III aircraft. So we’re going to simultaneously extend the service life so we can get more flying hours and then greatly enhance the capability as we give them the full Block III capability. So essentially an airplane coming out of there is a Block III F/A-18E-F with lots of flying hours left, which is not much different than a new production Block III F/A-18E-F with a lot of hours left.”
Many of the Navy’s most controversial cuts in the FY 2021 budget request were driven by flat toplines and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine construction squeezing out other spending priorities – cutting one of two planned attack submarines in 2021 and cutting a planned Arleigh Burke destroyer in the out years were “strictly affordability” issues, Navy officials have said.
Geurts assured that the decision to end F-18 procurement earlier than previously planned – another multiyear contract had been written into earlier aircraft procurement plans, showing a buy of 36 jets from 2022 to 2024 – had nothing to do with money and everything to do with need.
“When we look at our fighter shortfall, we’re about 49 aircraft short. Between SLM and F-35 coming online – we’re adding F-35s into the fleet now – that fighter shortfall essentially goes to zero towards the end of the 2020s. And so, looking at that, we have to take a little bit of risk in between now and the end of 2020s; about 40 aircraft on a fleet of 800 is a manageable risk. Particularly if we keep our mission capable rate up. I think we added about 134 aircraft to the Navy inventory in our mission capable rate improvements this last year, so that’s another way” to increase ready jets available for training and operations, Geurts told USNI News.
During the hearing, though, the subcommittee’s chairman and ranking member expressed concern about stopping production, especially since the Navy’s replacement program, the FA-XX program, is still in early development.
“The Navy’s budget proposal removes 36 Super Hornet strike-fighter aircraft planned after fiscal year 2021 and begins shutdown of the F/A-18 production line beginning in 2023, increasing the Navy’s strike-fighter shortfall next year. Further, we need to understand what gives Navy leadership and acquisition officials confidence that terminating Super Hornet production 10 years before the next generation FA-XX strike-fighter, currently existent on just briefing slides, is prudent,” Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) said in his opening statement.
“Regarding Navy strike fighter management: This budget request removed 36 new production F/A-18 Super Hornets in the out-years that were originally planned for production in last year’s budget. Given the Navy’s current shortfall of 49 aircraft, I’m concerned that this decision is creating too much operational risk in the near term,” Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) said in her opening statement. Boeing’s F-18 production facility is in her home state of Missouri, but not in Hartzler’s district.
Geurts told the lawmakers during the hearing that he was confident the Navy would have enough jets ready to train and operate at any given time under this plan. The SLM process currently takes 18 months but will be reduced to 12 months once the work moves to a productionized setup on an assembly line, which can only happen if new construction stops.
The Navy is also sending feedback to the fleet to try to reduce the amount of work the Super Hornets will eventually need when they go through SLM. For example, the first couple Super Hornets showed up with more corrosion than expected, Geurts acknowledged at the hearing. The Navy is working with flight line maintainers to find ways to reduce the number of times panels and spaces on the planes have to be opened during routine maintenance, to minimize how much exposure the jets’ insides have to the elements and ultimately to reduce corrosion that will have to be addressed during their SLM process.
On the Marine Corps side, Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder said during the hearing that the Marines are not facing a shortfall. In fact, now that the Navy has gotten rid of its remaining legacy Hornets and are operating just the Super Hornet, the Marines have been able to pick through the cast-aside planes and see which are in the best conditions for future operations.
“Since the Navy divested of their legacy Hornets, we actually have a lot of Hornets that we’re kind of sorting through to configure with the best of breed, the higher lot numbers if you will. We have 275; we need about 143 on the flight lines, so we have enough Hornets,” Rudder said.
“We have enough (AV-8B) Harriers, even though they’re down around 123. What the challenge for us is is the transition” to the F-35B and C variants and making sure procurement keeps up with the planned transition rate for squadrons.
The Marine Corps hopes to transition two Hornet or Harrier squadrons a year to the F-35, and they need to buy 20 new F-35s a year to keep up with this schedule. Given that lawmakers sometimes cut aircraft procurement to free up funds for other add-ins, or Pentagon or White House leaders make cuts to support other priorities outside the Marine Corps or Defense Department budget, Rudder said continuing at the 20-a-year procurement rate is the biggest risk to the service’s “ongoing in-stride transition” to fifth-generation aviation.