Lawmaker Asks Navy to Keep Building Super Hornets

Carrier launch

The chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Committee sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday urging the Pentagon to continue production of the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Congressman Randy Forbes, R-Va., warns that stopping its manufacture will limit production capacity for tactical fighter jets in the U.S. and increase prices by reducing competition.

"Without a change to its budget plans, the Department will be left with a sole-source tactical aircraft program for the Navy. Moreover, the loss of industrial capacity provided by the F/A-18 manufacturing line will eliminate vital competition that could result in spiraling costs, leading to more expensive, less capable systems," Forbes wrote.

Forbes asked Hagel to specify the Defense Department's plan.

"I respectfully ask you to respond as to how the Department is implementing policy related to preserving manufacturing capabilities within the defense industrial base for carrier-based tactical aviation," Forbes asked.

Ending production of the F/A-18 for the U.S. military will leave the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft as the sole major fighter aircraft manufacturing program. The Navy plans to acquire a carrier variant of the JSF -- the F-35C.

Of course, the Joint Strike Fighter program has faced a number of problems, including going over budget and missing multiple deadlines. F-35 program leaders say they have gotten the program back on track, but skepticism remains.

In fact, defense analysts have questioned whether Navy leaders are setting up to back out of their portion of the Joint Strike Fighter program with an eye on increasing their investment in Super Hornets.

"With future carrier-based aircraft still in development until 2019, I strongly believe that creating a single U.S. tactical aircraft supply chain at this time is too great a risk," Forbes wrote.

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 487 F/A-18 E/F aircraft, Capt. Frank Morley, F/A-18 and EA-18G program manager, said in recent interview with Military.com.

Overall, the program plans to acquire 563 aircraft, Morley said. At the same time, the Navy is also considering a series of upgrades to the F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft designed to increase the range, performance, and "stealthiness" of the aircraft, he added.

If the Navy decides to pursue these Boeing-funded upgrades to the aircraft, it is possible that additional production quantities beyond the 563 could be pursued, Navy officials said.

"Our current plans call for deliveries of F/A-18E/F aircraft through 2015 and the procurement of EA-18G aircraft in FY14 that will result in the delivery of these jets through 2016. The Navy continues to closely monitor the production lines and evaluate options to meet our strike fighter requirements," a Navy official said.

The technological innovations being considered include engine improvements, new electronics, a conformal fuel tank, an enclosed weapons pod and efforts to reduce the radar detectability or "signature" of the aircraft.

The only place where the F/A-18s are currently manufactured is at a Boeing facility in St. Louis.

Forbes also raised concerns that stopping the production line could result in the reduction of technological competition among "radar and engine" producers. He recommended that DoD draw from ship and submarine-building initiatives that succeeded in sustaining and strengthening the industrial base.  

"In other instances, the Department has taken steps to appropriately ensure multiple manufacturers in the shipbuilding and submarine industries. The Navy and the Department should nurture its tactical aviation manufacturing in the same way," Forbes' letter states.

Forbes stressed that the fast-changing global threat environment underscores the need for fighter-aircraft production capability in the U.S.

"Today, American forces find themselves increasingly challenged by mature precision-strike regimes that will require an Air Wing possessing a combination of extended range, persistence, stealth, payload, and electronic warfare capabilities and operating at both the high and low-end of the cost-curve," the letter states.

Many in the Navy may want Super Hornets produced beyond the numbers that are currently planned, however that may not necessarily resolve longer-term concerns about the industrial base, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, a Va.-based consultancy.

Extending Super Hornet production for a few more years will not solve the longer-term industrial base problems created by moving to a single tactical fighter aircraft production line when F/A-18 production stops, he said.

"The Navy might be facing a tactical aircraft problem because it has only budgeted for a small number of F-35Cs. There is a lot to be said for starting up a new R&D program," Aboulafia said.  

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