Navy Leans Toward Building More Super Hornets After F-35C Delays

The Navy is considering extending procurement of its F/A-18 Super Hornet beyond 2017 because of delays in production of the Navy’s carrier-launched F-35C and increased demands on the Hornet fleet, service leaders said.

Navy leaders had planned to halt production of the F/A-18 Super Hornet at Boeing’s St. Louis plant in 2017 as the service prepared to replace legacy Hornets with Joint Strike Fighters.

In order to reduce operational risk, Navy aviation leaders have said the service needs two to three additional squadrons of Super Hornets as older F/A-18As, Bs, Cs and Ds reach the end of their useful service life.

“We have looked at the F-18 inventory as part of our overall inventory management. The CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) has testified that looking at our inventory from now into the mid-2020s and 2030s — we need about two to three squadrons of Super Hornets to really reduce risk going forward as we procure F-35Cs,” Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, airector of air warfare, told Military.com in an interview.

A carrier air wing consists of about 44 strike aircraft made up of two 10-aircraft squadrons and two 12-plane squadrons complemented by several electronic jamming aircraft.  Therefore, the Navy’s stated need for additional squadrons would require the addition of more than 20 new aircraft.

The current composition of most carrier-based air wings includes 24 Super Hornets and 20 Hornets. The Navy plans to replace the existing legacy Hornets, or F/A-18 A-through Ds, with F-35Cs.

When the F/A-18A and F/A-18C reach 8,000 flight hours, they are sent into the depot for service life extension upgrades with the hope of getting the airframes to 10,000 hours. However, many of the older aircraft are in need of substantial repairs and, at the moment, as many as 54 percent of the Navy’s fleet of older legacy Hornets are not in service.

The depots cannot keep up with the demand to repair airplanes due to the deployment of F-18s, industry and Navy officials have explained.

“How many hours do I have left on the F-18-A and F-18C? I have to manage my procurement strategy to get an integrated air wing into the future,” Manazir said.

The Navy had been planning for the Super Hornets to serve well into the 2030s, but now service leaders say that timeline will need to extend into the 2040s. Manazir explained that the Navy plans to begin buying 20 F-35Cs a year by 2020.

“I’ve been flying F-A-18s to the tune of about 350 hours per year per tail. If I am flying at that rate, I need to replace those airplanes — 35 to 39 airplanes per year. As F-35C continues to push out and we are not buying 35 to 39 airplanes — you will see a deficit. We need strike fighters. We need some relatively near term,” Manazir explained.

The Navy recently placed 12 Super Hornets and eight Joint Strike Fighter F-35Cs on the 2016 unfunded requirements list, a wish list of extra items annually sent over to Congress as lawmakers prepare to mark up the annual budget.

The F/A-18 production line includes production of the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet as well as the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. So far, the Navy, Boeing and its partners have built and delivered about 500 F/A-18 E/F aircraft, Navy officials said.

Overall, the F-18 program plans to acquire 563 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets; however, that number appears to be on the rise. The A, C and D models are no longer being made.

Boeing officials have said they need to decide about the production line at some point later this year, indicating a need to make a decision about whether to buy what’s called long-lead production items.

The F/A-18 industrial footprint spreads across 44 states and is responsible for more than $6 billion in estimated annual economic impact, including 90,000 direct and indirect jobs

The Navy is considering a series of upgrades to the F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft designed to increase the range and performance of the aircraft, Manazir added.

These proposed upgrades include the use of conformal fuel tanks, avionics enhancements and an external weapons pod designed to reduce the aircraft’s radar signature.

If the Navy decides to pursue these Boeing-funded upgrades to the aircraft, it is possible the Navy could also buy more than the 563 proposed, Navy officials said. Citing affordability concerns, Manazir said it was unlikely that all of the proposed upgrades would take place simultaneously.

Manazir added that the Navy plans for the Super Hornet to operate with the F-35C.  At the same time, some analysts have raised the question about whethere the presence of less stealthy Super Hornets or Growlers in tandem with F-35C might alert potential adveraries that the planes were in the vicinity,  thereby neutralizing the F-35’s stealth characteristics.

The Navy is also involved in an ongoing joint study to assess the need for E/A-18G Growler jamming or electronic attack aircraft.

“We have enough Growlers to support the Navy mission, but what joint airborne electronic attack missions will we need to support in the future? Right now, we have 153 of them. If the joint fight requires more Growlers, then those would also come off the same line,” he explained.

The rapid technological improvement of potential adversaries’ air defense systems has created a circumstance wherein the F-35C’s stealth technology will at times need to work in tandem with the support of Growler electronic jamming aircraft.

“Maneuvering inside all of the bands of the spectrum is very important. If there is a strike fighter that is optimized for a certain part of the spectrum, you have to worry about dominating the rest of the spectrum,” Manazir explained. “If you are going to operate against high-end integrated air defense systems, you will have to have a combination of low-radar cross-section and probably some kind of jamming characteristics.”

— Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • d. kellogg

    I think this is the wiser route to pursue, if just to guarantee more lower-hour airframes available for the future Navy (and perhaps even USMC).

    I’m curious if this may be the incentive Boeing needs to “hard copy” produce full scale flyable versions of some of their follow on Super Hornet concepts, akin to how the F-16 program saw the CCV/AFTI, AVEN, and XL developments (even though nothing of those programs ever ported over into production aircraft, other than improvements in flight control software). Some of those Super Hornet Plus types similarly “tricked out” like the F-16XL would be interesting to see flying and demonstrating what they could be capable of.

    But would Boeing ever commit to it on their own dime?

  • Fatman

    Instead of holding contractors to their end of a trillion dollar deal we’ll just order more of the old hardware the F-35 was supposed to replace.

    GREAT JOB

    • NotASpy.org

      The JSF or F35 was a complete failure I think the navy knows that and is trying to back out

    • blight_

      F-35 was supposed to replace legacy Hornets. It appears the Super Hornet will replace the remaining legacy Hornets, until the -C comes online.

      If -C is ever procured in enough quantities it will in turn replace the oldest Super Hornets in the fleet, along with any remaining Hornets.

      • Captain Obvious

        I think the US Navy is being smart with this one. With budget cuts and lack of funding being a hot item in the future, why jeopardize your service by implementing a costly unproven aircraft?

        The benefit they currently hold is while air power is a part of the arsenal, it’s not the only part. The navy holds in high regard the strength it has across its entire fleets (subs, missile cruisers, destroyers, carriers, etc). They do not want to let a single aircraft jeapordize funding for those other aspects.

        Look at the air force on the other hand and see what will happen when they put all their eggs in one basket. While the idea on paper sounded good initially, it’s a runaway freight train. The fight for the A-10 is great and I think is great counter pressure to the “end all be all bloated DOD marshmellow”.

        They should of produced the F-35 as a baseline model without trying to integrate so much tech into it. 20 Super Hornets are a lot more effective than 5 JSF. It’s going to end up using the same tactics the F-22 uses. Integrate 2 F22s with a couple F-15 and use it as a platform to send a wall of AMRAAMs. Which is probably the best plan for the JSF at this point because no one can afford to send in a group of F-35s.

        • blight_

          There’s a lot of computer and sensor fusion stuff that could have been platform agnostic (and separately funded) if F-35 had been fielded earlier with more basic avionics. It would not have helped with the weight issues that resulted in considerable design revisions.

        • Tad

          Well, the Navy originally was putting all its eggs in the F-35 basket. Plus, the Navy has eroded the capabilities of the surface fleet by pumping so much money into the LCS that they’re now forced to retire cruisers and destroyers early. It’s tough to give the Navy much credit for being smart since it’s so late in the game because for many years the Navy has not just jeopardized, but cut back on, realistic training, maintenance, combat-capable fleet size, …, and part of that is because the Navy committed so heavily to two programs - F-35 and LCS.

  • crackedlenses

    Queue Black Owl gloating in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…..

  • Cylon Sleeper

    Why not just buy one of the Chinese ‘versions’? Or set up a formal partnership: American technology + Chinese manufacturing = winning product. It’s worked for Apple.

  • Peter Miles

    I’m beginning to think that the F-35 will never actually enter service. All that money down the drain, all the other projects ignored because that one was coming….
    As I’m from the UK and we’ve signed up for the F-35 to put on our new carriers I feel especially bitter about the whole fiasco! And because we went for the VTOL version the carriers have no traps and cats so we can’t even cancel and but F-18’s instead! I just despair, we’re going to have two carriers and nothing to fly off them.

    • Dfens

      Try to see if from Lockheed’s perspective. They’ve made money on the JSF cash cow for 20 years. Now it’s time for that program to be cancelled so they can make money off it’s cash cow follow on program for the next couple of decades. The stupid US taxpayer never seems to tire of that game, and Lockheed makes money hand over fist. What’s not to like?

    • OneHandClapping

      As long as the management at lockheed spend their salaries on American products and services, it’s not entirely wasted. Just don’t try to tell me that most of the Defense budget isn’t welfare for Pentagon cronies.

  • JEFF

    This is what happens when you try to solve everybody’s problems with one solution. A super expense jack of some trades master of none.

  • Mark

    “The F-35 combat load flies higher, longer, and faster than a combat load F-16,” said pilots who actually fly both. - paraphrased for brevity. They should just make more F-35C variants earlier instead.

  • Bernard

    Just cancel the F35. It’s a waste that’s draining every military project and leaving our nation defenseless. Stop giving Lockheed our tax dollars!

    • Dfens

      Yeah, who are you going to go to next time, Boeing? The company that gave you the X-32. That’ll show them.

      • t1oracle

        None of them. Not until the procurement process has been fixed. Contractors should be held to a budget and timeline, and forced to cover any cost overruns. I would suggest having a range for the time and cost. Every progression a contractor makes towards the maximum should require a full revaluation of the project. With the maximum being a point that cannot be crossed without a congressional decision.

        Furthermore, any contractors that have failed to meet initial time and budget estimates in the past should have that held against them in any competition for new projects. Also, any individuals involved in procurement should not be allowed to work for a winning contractor until 20 years after the contract has completed. Finally, all competitions for defense projects should be open to any company capable of submitting a qualified prototype (the functional requirements of which should be determined by the contract) developed at their own expense.

        • Dfens

          What you recommend will do basically one thing and one thing only. It will encourage the defense contractors to hide as many problems as possible, and fix them later when they are killing pilots. Hell, that’s what was happening in the 1970s and ’80s when the federal government was only reimbursing defense contractors for development using the dreaded “cost plus” contracts (currently they use “cost plus award fee” for everything). Under that kind of contract the defense corporations would work us engineers like dogs to finish the design as quickly as possible and not test anything. Then when the airplanes started killing people the companies would stonewall and impede the investigations as much as possible until the finally got a big contract to fix what they shouldn’t have screwed up in the first place.

          Instead of repeating everything we’ve done wrong over the last few decades, why don’t we repeat the things we did right?

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    dkellogg’s thought intrigues me, but is there any experimental F-18 re-design that would significantly improve the F-18 without breaking the Navy’s well-stretched budget? If they’re only engineering proposals without flight test data, they’re probably out of reach.

  • BlackOwl18E

    *sniff* *sniff* Is that victory I smell? *sniff* I think it is…

  • Nicky

    I think the US Navy is slowly starting to realize how a miserable failure the JSF program is and is trying to slowly back away from the JSF program and put all their money on the Super Hornet and the Advance super hornet.

    • blight_

      Wouldn’t start betting on Advanced Super Hornet just yet. Plenty of opportunities for hair pulling there!

  • blight_

    So…when can SpaceX bid for combat fighter jet programs? This is out of hand.

    • Dfens

      You must be referring to Northrop and their F-20 Tigershark that lost out to the not as good or as cost effective but developed using public funds F-16 from General Dynamics. That pretty much put an end to commercial development of Air Force aircraft.

      • blight_

        “Freedom isn’t free” is now “free market isn’t free”

    • pork barrel kid

      how many SpaceX rockets have exploded the past two years?

  • Bullphrog855

    US Navy cuts the ramp up of F-35C production, then complain that F-35C production is taking longer.

  • Kostas

    Super Hornets are cheaper than F35s but they do not bring any deterrence. An adversary with modern Sukhois won’t be impressed by 44 Super Hornets on an aircraft carrier. If that same carrier brings to the fight 20 stealth fighters with highly capable radar, sensor fusion, DAS, MADL etc, the adversary will think twice (or thrice) about attempting anything.

  • d. kellogg

    With regards to porting over upgrades into current and future platforms,
    there was a good video dug up on youtube about the GAU-12 (25mm) development and installation for the USMC’s AV-8s from back in the day.

    I was quite impressed with what the development team set out to do, and what the end result was. Point being, it would be an interesting development to see how many current aircraft, or soon to be built, could upgrade their 20mm M61 guns to either the GAU-12 (5 barrel 25mm) or GAU-22 (4 barrel 25mm), seeing as there is growing concern of lack of firepower should the A-10 be put out to pasture.
    Very impressive performance from the 25mm ammunition they tested…

    youtube.com/watch?v=irn_74oXfUg

    • Christopher

      How does the Gau-22 compare to the M61A2? A higher caliber means less ammo per sortie. Also helpful in Air to Air until some revolutionary weapon system changes the rules of engagement.

  • Adman

    If they are going this route, I wonder if they will try the Advance Super Hornet in place of the standard. At least they would get some benefits of stealth and increased range by doing so.

  • Christopher

    Incoming butthurt from the Fanboys at F-16.net

    • mtm

      why?

      a lot of F-35 cheerleaders over there?

  • Ming the Merciless

    The high water mark is nigh for the F-35…

    Prediction:
    The USAF will have to buy the F-35A and its full slated delivery of airframes.
    The USN will quietly kill the F-35C. It will still have to buy some but probably less than half the slated buy.
    The USMC will buy its compliment of F-35B models and fly half the planned hours to avoid going broke.
    The RAF will be the only foreign customer.

    • mtm

      I predict that none of your predictions will come true.

  • Mark

    The F-35 flies higher, faster, and can loiter longer than an F-16. It is like taking our best ground based defense radar/detection structure and sending it out to the enemy. It will be hard to detect and will see and destroy with impunity all active defensive and offensive assets that our enemy can muster. The F-35 can do this where the F-18, the F-15, the F-18 growler, the F-16, the A-10, the Harrier and our awacks planes can’t.

  • donbacon

    The Navy “delays in production” are really the Navy’s intelligent decision to procure only a few useless faulty prototypes per year, unlike the Air Force. The Navy may also recognize that fielding planes before the Milestone C production decision, scheduled for Apr 2019, is illegal under Title 10 USC § 2399 - Operational test and evaluation of defense acquisition programs.

  • jbiz

    My prediction. F-35 will be an average plane but performance wise outclassed by Russian/Chinese designs. It will make this up with situational awareness and DOD will buy additional protection for it. This will be a turkey flying around with additional costly defense that will frustrate the enemy. The fighter jocks will fly the turkey proudly around in an envelope of protection. I guess when you have it to attack third world countries it is good enough for the job. A new battle plan will include defense of the flying turkey and protection of battle group.

    • Dfens

      It’s a better plane than the F-22. I know you all think you know better than those of us who actually design this shit, but I’ve never seen an airplane as f’ed up in its layout as the F-22. It’s nothing but a flying pair of intake ducts with a few avionics scattered around the periphery. The F-35 carries more weapons, more fuel, and from a front view it has a better radar signature. Plus its who concept of operations is far better thought out than the F-22. Believe the military industrial complex bs or believe someone who knows what the f he’s talking about. It’s up to you.

      • mtm

        not true.

        F-22 is slightly better.

      • blight_

        The F-22’s concept of ops was initially stealthy air superiority, no? Doesn’t leave much room for ground attack.

        We will either need stealthy mounting hardware combined with low RCS weapons (e.g Have Dash), or go with those low RCS weapons pods that are being touted as concept by Boeing for the Advanced Super Hornet. I’m still surprised we have not developed those weapon pods for JSF to increase their effective low RCS weapons loads beyond internal stores.

    • pork barrel kid

      costly defense? well, pretty sure it’s going to be very costly, but defense, no, it’s not going to be any defense. A generation of engineers who cannot even get a couple of planes right despite hundreds of billions in funding are not going to get any defense right.

      frustrate the enemy? yeah right, by not taking off in the first place. can’t get any stealthier than that.

    • blight_

      Russians remain focused on affordability. Unlike us, their aerospace companies are not billing the government for the R&D associated with developing advanced avionics. The Russians did get early versions of off-bore missiles and IRST first, and if the shoe had dropped during the Cold War those early versions would take to the field against our forces, which did not have either.

      At present, it is a race to see who can make changes to their legacy fleet the fastest. Will the Russians deliver enough 5th gens to make a difference? Can they turnover/upgrade their existing aircraft more quickly?

      • Mark

        Is their 5Th generation planes really 5th or are the 4.56th gen?

  • RunningBear

    …hmmm…124-0, gee I wonder what else it can do?….. :)

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    The Advanced Super Hornet has a claimed 50% decrease in radar signature. Am I correct in speculating that this reduction is in a clean condition, no missiles or external IRST pod, in a head-on configuration? Given the state of the radar art, I wonder if that reduction is really enough to matter. I also wonder if it would not be worthwhile to delete the M-61 and install the IRST system inside the airframe (heresy, I guess) for radar stealth, and for the sake of unfashionable concerns about maneuverability and acceleration. The X-53 wing modifications sound intriguing; yet the Navy hasn’t pursued it and no comparable technology has been described for the F-35. Was there a fatigue problem?

  • gkm

    there is no such thing as a stealth invisible fighter. no body has one and won’t have for a long time. that term is just to impress teenage boys. first the plane and than the radar that can see it. that’s how it goes.

  • Bill Stinson

    The DOD & Navy were Dumb-asses in giving the F-35C carrier version & F-35B version to Lockheed. If theygave production to Boeing, it would already be in-service. Their history with F/A-18 and AV8B cannot be denied. Accurate pre-engineering, fast adjustments to software issues and none of the silly delays caused by Lockheed’s stupid procurement policies. For Navy & Marine fighters GO TO BOEING St. Louis, not the goofballs in Texas.