Aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the US Navy (USN) are apparently locked in a dispute over the production of nearly two-dozen fighter jets.
At issue are 20 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet multi-role strike fighters, funding for which congressional lawmakers approved in the 2022 and 2023 defence budgets.
However, the USN has yet to issue a contract for the production of those aircraft, apparently seeking additional ownership rights to data from the F/A-18 type.
With the USN preparing to end its purchases of new Super Hornets, Boeing plans to shutter its F/A-18 production line in the coming years. That is raising fears in Congress that the 20 additional fighters will never actually make it into the US inventory.
“Those jets have yet to be actually awarded to the prime contractor and they are actively shutting down – not just their production line, but their entire supply chain,” says Representative Mike Garcia, who sits on the House appropriations subcommittee on defence matters.
The subcommittee, which plays a key role in approving the USA’s defence budget, held a hearing on 23 March, during which secretary of defense Lloyd Austin fielded questions from lawmakers.
Garcia raised the issue of the 20 Super Hornets, arguing the USN needs all the strike fighter capacity it can secure.
“I believe we need capacity, as well as the capability,” Garcia says. “I think right now we are losing, as a nation, one of the critical tools to closing that strike fighter gap in the form of the Super Hornet production line.”
The California Republican notes he is a proponent of the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme, which he describes as the USN’s capability fighter. But Garcia says the service also needs larger numbers a cheaper, “capacity” strike fighter in the F/A-18.
The USN did not ask for the 20 Super Hornets at issue. Congress, as often happens in the legislative process, independently added funding for the jets into the final budget. This is sometimes done because lawmakers disagree with a strategic priority, or as a way to boost federal spending in districts where military hardware is produced.
While the Department of Defense (DoD) does have limited authority to “reprogramme” funds allocated for a specific purpose, the Pentagon is typically required to use its budget as passed by Congress.
In the case of the 20 F/A-18s, the USN is apparently seeking to change the terms of procurement from previous contracts, which supporters of the deal say is an effort to avoid making the purchase.
“They’re asking for intellectual property from the contractor that is different from tech data packages designed for basic sustainment and repair,” says Garcia. “I think we’re overreaching,” he adds.
In response to a request for comment on the matter, including what data the service is seeking and for what purpose, the USN office overseeing F/A-18 procurement says only that it cannot discuss ongoing contract negotiations. However, it adds that the service remains committed to ”ensuring the capabilities of the strike fighter remain at the service of the nation now and well into the future”.
According to Garcia, the USN and Boeing are in active discussions to resolve the issue. However, he indicates the two sides are not making progress.
“I think we need some supervision here and just get the lawyers in the room to put a kibosh on this, get a negotiated settlement and figure out some other means to get that intellectual property,” Garcia says.
Boeing declines to comment on the matter. However, an individual close to the matter, but not authorised to comment publicly, confirms the accuracy of Garcia’s comments.
Boeing currently plans to shutter the F/A-18 production line in 2025, after it completes assembly of all new-build aircraft on order.
“We are planning for our future,” said Boeing air dominance vice-president Steve Nordlund on 23 February, when the move was announced. “As we invest in and develop the next era of capability, we are applying the same innovation and expertise that made the F/A-18 a workhorse for the US Navy and air forces around the world.”
Boeing notes it could extend production into 2027, pending new orders from an international customer – also an indication that the company could accommodate the additional 20 aircraft for the USN, should the service chose to issue a contract.
In addition to the F/A-18, Boeing is currently developing several new platforms, including the T-7A jet trainer for the US Air Force, F-15EX revamp to the undefeated air superiority platform and the autonomous MQ-28 Ghost Bat collaborative combat aircraft, on which Boeing is a partner with the Royal Australian Air Force.