Boeing Co. as early as this summer will fly for the first time an upgraded version of the F/A-18 Super Hornet that it's pitching to the U.S. Navy as an alternative to the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35, a Boeing vice president said.
A Super Hornet outfitted with a weapons pod on its belly, an avionics system in the cockpit featuring a touch-screen pad, and other modifications will begin test flights in late summer or early fall from St. Louis and then from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Md., according to Mike Gibbons, vice president of F/A-18 programs at Chicago-based Boeing.
The improvements, to include new engines made by General Electric Co., are part of a company investment designed to provide the service with an alternative to the F-35 Lightning II during a period of tightening defense budgets, Gibbons said today at the Sea-Air-Space exhibition, a three-day conference at National Harbor, Maryland, organized by the Navy League.
"We're not trying to replace the F-35," he said in an interview after a media briefing. "We're just trying to give the Navy solutions as they look at that fleet mix and figure out what works best."
The F-35 program, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is the Defense Department's most expensive acquisition effort, estimated to cost almost $400 billion for a total of 2,443 aircraft. The Navy plans to buy about 260 of the Navy variant of the plane known as F-35C, designed to take off from and land on aircraft carriers.
Even the Navy's top officer has questioned the need for a stealth naval aircraft such as the F-35 given advances in radar technology. In an editorial last year in "Proceedings," a monthly magazine published by the U.S. Naval Institute, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, argued that "we need to move from 'luxury-car' platforms -- with their built-in capabilities -- toward dependable 'trucks' that can handle a changing payload selection."
During a speech this morning, Greenert defended the F-35. "I need the fifth-generation strike fighter," he said. "We're all in, but it has to perform."
Regardless, Boeing wants the F/A-18 to be that cheaper workhorse for the Navy.
"Everybody needs defense dollars to stretch further," Gibbons said. "That's why the Super Hornet looks good right now."
The Defense Department faces $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade under deficit-reduction legislation passed in 2011. Half of that, about $500 billion, will come from automatic, across-the-board cuts — unless Congress and the White House agree to an alternative spending plan.