US Navy officials have reaffirmed plans to procure an additional 24 to 36 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets through fiscal year 2018 while also boosting F/A-18C life-extension rates, primarily due to delays in fielding the carrier-based Lockheed Martin F-35C.
Boeing has been trying desperately to shore up Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler production in St Louis, Missouri, but the company’s difficulty in securing international sales has raised doubts.
However, comments by navy officials at a congressional hearing this week suggest more F/A-18 orders in fiscal 2017 and 2018. That is in addition to the dozen aircraft that are likely to be funded in the current fiscal 2016 budget.
“We have a strike fighter inventory management challenge,” says navy air warfare director Rear Adm Michael Manazir. “If you look at the demands in the strike fighters into 2030, we have a shortfall. The shortfall in the early part of the 2020s is about 138 airplanes.”
The navy expects to overcome that shortfall by life-extending the F/A-18C from 6,000h to 10,000h and through the procurement of “two to three squadrons” of Super Hornets.
The service has had difficulty life-extending those aircraft because of depot throughput limitations and an unanticipated amount of internal corrosion. Unlike shore-based aircraft, naval airframes must withstand corrosive seawater and the stress of arrested landings, making the life-extension process much more uncertain.
The navy overhauled approximately 30 legacy jets last year, according to Manazir, and throughput rates have increased by 40% this year. In 2017, the navy hopes to life-extend 104 F/A-18Cs.
All this activity relates to the delayed introduction of the F-35, which has been in development since 2001. The navy has pushed out its F-35C procurement profile, contending that aircraft without the Block 3F software load do not meet the needs of the carrier air wings.
Block 3F includes the full complement of F-35 capabilities and weapons at the end of system development and demonstration (SDD), and is the configuration the navy intends to declare initial operational capability with in August 2018.
The navy eventually aims to field one F-35C squadron per carrier air wing initially, with those squadrons operating alongside Super Hornets and Growlers.
“F-18Es and Fs are the majority of our force going to 2035,” says Manazir. “We might even fly those airplanes close to 2040.”