Even as the US Navy celebrated the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet’s 35th anniversary with the fleet at a ceremony at Naval Air Station Patuxent River this week, public debate remains around the platform’s future.
Boeing is slated to continue the F/A-18 production line until the end of 2016, unless further orders are placed by the US Navy. For their part, the US Navy is acquiring Super Hornets and Growlers through to 2014, when funding for additional airframes is expected to stop.
“The F/A-18 and EA-18G program continue to thrive,” said Capt Frank Morley, Naval Air Systems Command’s program manager for Hornet and Growler. “And it is by far the most predominant tactical force in naval aviation both in the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps.”
But the US Department of Defense has been reluctant to commit to further orders, something many commentators blame on fear for the “prodigal son” F-35 program. The US Navy’s variant, the F-35C, isn’t slated to enter service until 2019 and even then will take quite some time to achieve operation capability. Until then, it will be Super Hornet and Growler who are the mainstay of the US Navy’s fleet air arm.
For that reason, Boeing has some cause to be confident. With the F-35 production line now making consistent – but slow – progress, it’s likely that the US Navy will need more Super Hornet and Growler airframes to keep the capability operational out to the next decade.
The big question for Boeing is who will pay to keep the production line operational post-2014. Boeing has previously hinted to Australian Aviation that it would be willing to maintain the production line using company funds, as it did with the C-17 production line. Further lessons can be drawn from the C-17 program, which saw Boeing reduce the production rate without increasing unit cost.
Flyaway cost for a Super Hornet without its government-furnished GE engines and electronic warfare package is $37 million, and the company produces around 48 airframes per year. Adding on the engines and EW package, the Super Hornet costs around $51 million, with Growler coming in around $60 million.
Speaking to reporters at the anniversary event, Boeing’s vice president for the Super Hornet and Growler programs Mike Gibbons said there are no plans to shut down the production line, which would see the US Navy sign a shut-down contract costing “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Gibbons cited the RAAF’s recent purchase of an additional 12 airframes as indicative of broader international interest in the platform, although the Australian government has asserted that no further bridging aircraft will be required to maintain Australia’s air combat capability before the introduction of the F-35.