The US Navy is considering ordering additional Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft in fiscal 2015, despite current plans to cease procurement in the current 2014 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September.
In a pre-solicitation notice posted on FedBizOpps.gov, the Naval Air Systems Command says it “intends to solicit and negotiate a fixed-price” contract with Boeing for up to 36 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and E/A-18G Growler aircraft in FY2015.
The notice comes amid concern about ending F/A-18E/F production in a time of uncertainly about the readiness of the Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.
The navy’s order would also include ancillary mission equipment and technical data.
In a separate pre-solicitation, the navy says it intends to acquire from General Electric up to 84 F414 engines, which power both the Super Hornet and Growler.
“It looks like [navy leaders]are hedging their bets and creating the option to go with the Super Hornet in the near term,” Todd Harrison, senior fellow at Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, tells Flightglobal.
If the navy does order more F/A-18E/Fs, it could cut the number of F-35Cs it purchases in the near-term by delaying deliveries, says Harrison.
“As we understand it, [the pre-solicitation] is more of a formality to keep the door open to potential future buys” of F/A-18s, according to Boeing, which has said it will not keep its St. Louis F/A-18 production site operating without further US military orders.
Boeing referred additional questions to the navy.
Lockheed Martin declined to comment, also referring questions to the navy.
The navy declines to comment about F/A-18E/Fs for FY2015, telling Flightglobal it “can’t speculate about the contents of forthcoming budgets.”
But during a 23 October meeting of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, US Navy Vice Admiral Allen Myers told senators that FY2014 budget cuts threaten the ability of the navy to ensure F-35Cs reach “initial operational capability” by 2018.
Other US officials have also expressed concern about ending F/A-18E/F production and have hinted the navy might order more aircraft in 2015.
“Due to the delay in fielding the navy variant of the joint strike fighter, ending the Super Hornet production prematurely creates risk in the navy's strike fighter force structure, and in the nation's production capacity and a competitive industrial base,” said the US Senate appropriations committee in its report on the Department of Defense 2014 appropriations bill.
“The committee recommends a $75 million increase for advance procurement of F/A-18 aircraft and expects the navy to procure additional aircraft in the fiscal year 2015 budget request,” added the Senate.
The appropriations bill has not yet been passed by the Senate.
The navy has orders for 260 F-35C aircraft, with initial operational capability scheduled for between August 2018 and February 2019.
F-35s could cost up to $125 million each, according to one defence aviation analyst, while Super Hornets cost “in the mid-$50 million range,” according to Boeing’s website.
The F-35 joint program office (JPO) declined to speculate about how a navy order for F/A-18E/Fs would impact the F-35’s budget or schedule, noting that JPO does not know the navy’s intentions and that budget constraints have created more uncertainly.
The office adds that it communicates with the armed services daily and that its role is to provide access to acquisition information.
Harrison notes that the navy has interest in keeping Boeing’s St. Louis facility open in the near-term because the site is a second source for fighter aircraft.
Another navy order would also keep production open to foreign customers such as Brazil, which has postponed an order for up to 36 F/A-18E/Fs.
Also, Harrison notes a closure at St. Louis threatens other Boeing operations there, such as Boeing Phantom Works, the company’s advanced technology division.
But don’t read too much into the pre-solicitation bid, Harrison cautions.
The navy has not yet placed firm orders for more F/A-18s and does not yet have the necessary funding, he notes. Also, pre-solicitation is a “first step” in a lengthy contracting cycle.
“It doesn’t mean they will do it,” Harrison says.
Foreign buyers of the F-35 will likely take note of the navy’s interest in more F/A-18s, but not because it signals lack of faith in the F-35, Harrison adds.
Rather, changes to the US Navy’s orders might affect the cost of F-35s or the delivery schedule, Harrison says.
“A lot of foreign customers are worried the [production] schedule will slip,” Harrison says, and fewer orders from the US Navy could drive up unit costs.
“I don’t think it affects their confidence in the technology or performance, it’s more of a schedule and unit-cost issue,” he says.