DoD: Super Hornets to Offset F-35 Delays (Updated)

As Congress moves to flat-line F-35 Joint Strike Fighter purchases over the next two years, the Navy is buying more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to offset any fighter gaps caused by the delay of the fifth-gen fighter, top DoD officials told lawmakers this month.

While this is something that been tacitly understood for a long time, this is the first I've heard the Pentagon's very top officials come out and say it.

From Bloomberg:

“The department’s commitment to the F-35 is solid and we are committed to production rates that minimize cost,” the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, Ashton Carter, wrote Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn on Sept. 1.

The Pentagon last year requested $1.9 billion for 22 additional non-stealthy F-18E/Fs and $2.6 billion more for 28 in fiscal 2012 from Chicago-based Boeing. Some of this money came from a pool of $12 billion in F-35 funds that the Pentagon last year cut or transferred, citing the need for additional testing of its top weapons program.

Buying additional F-18E/Fs “was an acknowledgment” that a delay in buying the Navy F-35 version “would slow down the rate at which” it would reach the fleet, Carter said.

The Navy estimates it will start in 2015 seeing a shortfall in the required number of fighters for its 11 aircraft carriers, Carter wrote.

Still, “the F-35 is a very high priority and the production rate will not be reduced solely to pay other bills in the budget,” Carter wrote.

The piece goes on to quote Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying that the buys of "highly-capable" Super Hornets "will help mitigate that shortfall while we continue to ramp up F-35 procurement. The F-35 is intended to complement the F/A-18E/F, not replace it. The Navy needs the capabilities that both aircraft provide.”

He ominously went on to say that while "support for the F-35 is strong" the JSF and other fighters are "not exempt from an "exhaustive review" of roles and missions.

“We are committed to making responsible” F-35 investment decisions that reflect program status, force structure requirements and Department priorities,’’ he wrote.

It doesn't make clear if these Super Hornets -- partially paid for with what had been F-35 cash -- are part of the $5.2 billion multi-year deal for 124-planes that the Navy signed with Boeing in late 2010.

Update: Boeing spokesman Phillip Carder confirmed for DT that the 50 Super Hornets mentioned in the Bloomberg piece are part of the 124-jet multi-year deal.

That purchase gave the sea service 46 F/A-18Es and 20 F/A-18F Super Hornets, and 58 EA-18G Growler electronic warfare variants -- this completed the Navy's Super Hornet program of record for 515 F/A-18E/Fs and 113 Growlers by the end of fiscal year 2013.

I'm also curious what's  going to happen to the Marine Corps fleet of F/A-18 Hornets many of which are nearing the end of their service lives.

Meanwhile, Senate defense appropriators cut $695 million from F-35 coffers in their markup of the fiscal year 2012 defense spending bill -- a move meant to keep F-35 production rates flat at 35 jets per-year for the next two years.

F-35-maker Lockheed Martin is currently producing 32 jets under a $5 million-plus deal, signed in Sept. 2010, for the fourth batch of Low-Rate Initial Production planes.

We'll see what happens tomorrow when the full Senate Appropriations Committee votes on the bill.

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