Boeing Aims To Keep Building F/A-18 Jets Through 2020

By Andrea Shalal-Esa/Reuters
May 10, 2013
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Shannon Collins

Boeing could keep building its Super Hornet fighter jet and a modified electronic attack version through 2020, the company said, given prospects for over 200 foreign sales and what it sees as up to 150 more sales to the U.S. Navy.

Michael Gibbons, Boeing vice president for F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, spent part of this week pitching additional sales of Boeing’s last fighter jet to congressional staffers in a triple-wide trailer packed with simulators, displays and souvenirs.

His mission? To safeguard funding for 21 EA-18G Growlers in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2014 budget, and underscore the advantages of the Super Hornet, for which Boeing has developed a package of upgrades aimed at making it more competitive with Lockheed Martin Corp’s (LMT.N) fifth-generation F-35 multirole fighter.

The F/A-18 is Boeing’s last fighter jet in production after it lost the F-35 contract to Lockheed in 2001. Boeing has sought to parlay delays and cost overruns on the F-35 program into more sales of its jets, but its efforts have taken on new urgency in recent years as F/A-18 production begins to wind down.

“It’s a make or break year for the F/A-18 and Boeing,” said Virginia-based defense consultant Jim McAleese. He said the company was scrambling to drum up more sales since the Navy’s current plans call for no further Super Hornet purchases.

Boeing backers in Congress have repeatedly added F/A-18s to the Navy’s budget in recent years, arguing that the Navy needs more fighters to bridge the gap until the F-35 can be fielded.

Gibbons told Reuters that Boeing wanted congressional aides to see the F/A-18 as a viable option if the Navy revamped its current plan to use two squadrons of F-35s and two squadrons of Super Hornets on its aircraft carriers.

“We’re here to ... make sure that people on the Hill who are not close to aviation really understand why the Super Hornet ... is actually a next-generation aircraft, and why it’s an affordable option, especially in a budget-challenged environment,” he said as a line of congressional aides tested the plane’s new touch-screen cockpit display.

The Navy began using the Super Hornet’s single-seat E-model and two-seat F-model in 2000. Although Boeing marketed the plane as an “upgrade” to the Hornet to secure funding during an earlier defense spending drawdown, experts say the Super Hornet is essentially a new aircraft. It has a larger wing and longer fuselage to carry more fuel and more powerful engines.

The company’s last multi-year contract with the Navy ends in mid-2015, but production of the Super Hornet and Growler is slated to run through late 2016 after Australia announced last week that it would buy a dozen more Growlers, a solid order, but only half the number Boeing had hoped to sell.