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

By Andrea Shalal-Esa/Reuters

Boeing is also eyeing prospects in Brazil, Malaysia, several Middle Eastern countries that it declined to name, where Boeing has flown flight demonstrations in recent years. Analysts say Kuwait and several others may announce contracts as early as this year.

And Boeing is providing F/A-18 data to two other countries that are rethinking their F-35 plans: Canada, which is looking for 35 new jets, and Denmark, which needs 30 planes.

Altogether, Gibbons sees over 200 international orders up for grabs in coming years, and he views Boeing as a strong contender to win Brazil’s 35-aircraft competition, where a decision is expected by the third quarter.

Boeing has dramatically increased its presence in Brazil over the past year, partnering with Brazilian planemaker Embraer SA (EMBR3.SA) and other companies on a range of projects.

The company is offering Brazil and other international customers a package of upgrades priced at $8 million to $9 million to add capabilities to the Super Hornet, including a larger touchscreen cockpit display, missile tracking, an engine with 20 percent more thrust, new fuel tanks and an internal weapons pod to make the plane harder to see on radar screens.

Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N), a key supplier, and Boeing are building a prototype at their own cost to demonstrate the lower radar signature of the new Advanced Super Hornet - jokingly dubbed the “Super Duper Hornet” by some - on a Navy test range in late summer or early fall, Gibbons said.

He said the improvements would be available for use on the planes within three to six years. Continued production and upgrades of the Super Hornet would keep options open for the Navy as it braced for leaner times, he said.

He said Boeing saw a possibility of 75 to 150 additional aircraft sales to the Navy, especially given its operating cost, which is the lowest of any U.S. fighter in use.

And while Gibbons conceded that there were “a lot of decisions yet to be made,” he said the Super Hornet production line would likely keep running until 2020 and beyond.

At $16,000 per flight hour, Boeing said the jet’s operating cost is far below that of the F-35, and its procurement price is also lower. Lockheed and Pentagon officials say the F-35’s production price is coming down, and it offers the military far more capabilities, including advanced electronic warfare and jamming capabilities and better radar-evading signatures.