Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet could steal orders away from the Lockheed Martin F-35 if the Trump Administration adjusts defence priorities, military acquisition analyst Andrew Hunter told an audience 23 January at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
An "advanced Super Hornet" still can’t compete with the stealthy F-35 in airspace monitored by radar surveillance, but a semi-low-observable F/A-18E/F with more carriage capacity could emerge as an attractive option against less sophisticated threats, according to Hunter.
“But if your strategy requires to operate continuously in denied access air environments, there is no such thing as a comparable Super Hornet,” he adds. “It simply doesn’t exist.”
In 2015, US Gen Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Russia the greatest existential threat to the US followed by China, North Korea and Islamic State terrorists. That order affects how the US Department of Defense approaches its procurement priorities. When it comes to air, it means the Pentagon has set its sights on buying high-end aircraft that can penetrate more sophisticated Russian air defences in Crimea.
But there is some indication from Trump’s previous statements and his proclivity for Russian president Vladimir Putin that the old order could be flipped. US president Donald Trump’s national security team could make terrorism their top concern and let the Russian threat fall to the back burner, according to CSIS defence budget analyst Todd Harrison.
“If that holds true then why do you need as many of these stealthy aircraft?” Harrison says. “So it could dramatically change what we’re buying.”
Last week, USAF chief Gen David Goldfein expressed his support for Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Senator John McCain’s proposal to add 300 low-cost fighters to the budget. That move would make sense if the DOD pivots its focus toward fighting terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where light-attack aircraft such as the Embraer Super Tucano already operate.
Trump’s proposal for a price shoot-out on the F-35 programme between Boeing and Lockheed has some precedent. Harrison noted the US Navy already pits the Super Hornet against the carrier-based F-35C variant, with its numerous budget requests to increase the number of F/A-18E/Fs while reducing orders for the F-35C.
The service requested 14 Super Hornets in the most recent defence policy bill, which were turned down by Congress. A recent white paper from McCain suggested continuing this trend, pointing to the growing shortfall of Navy fighters and ongoing delays to the F-35C programme. McCain proposed procuring 58 more Super Hornets and 16 EA-18G Growlers over the next five years, but would continue F-35 procurement as quickly as possible.
If Lockheed would feel competition from any aircraft, it would be the Super Hornet, Harrison adds.
“I think it’s easy to say Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about, the F-18 doesn’t have the same capabilities as F-35C,” Harrison says. “All of that’s true, but I think he knew that he was picking at a scab.”