New Year Could Bring Super Hornet Push

(POLITICO 26 DEC 13) … Philip Ewing

The New Year could bring a new push by Boeing, the Navy and their allies in Congress for more F/A-18 E and F Super Hornet fighters.

Year-end action in the capital has brought together a confluence of events that could finally nudge Super Hornet backers’ longstanding desire for more aircraft into potential action in Congress.

Boeing wants badly to keep production rolling beyond its current order book, especially after Brazil’s decision last week to buy 36 Saab Gripen fighters instead of Super Hornets. Company officials have warned that they must decide by March about whether to keep building aircraft.

The Navy, which has deep ties with Boeing, likes the idea of keeping two fighter aircraft in production, along with Lockheed Martin’s F-35C Lightning II, especially since it would likely get new Super Hornets sooner than its F-35s are scheduled to enter service.

And Missouri’s congressional delegation, led by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, is eager to protect Boeing’s factory outside St. Louis, which is one of the most important employers in the region. Missouri’s delegation is also hoping to entice Boeing to build its new 777X-model airliner in St. Louis, so a boost in fighter production would certainly get the company’s attention.

All these factors have been building for some time, and 2014 brings new opportunity. Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray’s budget compromise suspends sequestration for two years, freeing up cash, and also calls for the House and Senate appropriations committees to pass spending bills by the Jan. 15 expiration of the current temporary bill that funds the government.

“We’ll use those funds to restore spending on readiness,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “We will also work to minimize disruption to our most critical modernization efforts.”

Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey wouldn’t spell out just which modernization efforts they view as “critical,” but Blunt, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, could seize this opening.

“Closing the F/A-18 line would … leave a sole-source fighter jet industrial base, with no competition to bring down costs or to generate innovative technology breakthroughs,” he wrote in the hometown St. Louis Post-Dispatch in November. “This is not how the U.S. has stayed at the forefront of military technology. And it would be a serious mistake to change our approach now.”

That’s why Blunt has backed more Super Hornets in the past, he wrote, and would continue to do so down the line.

“I will continue to fight for this as we finalize a budget. Even at a time of shrinking DoD budgets, we must find a way to preserve our industrial base, so workers in St. Louis and around the country can continue to support our military with the best fighter jets in the world now and well into the future.”

Boeing is doing its best to meet Congress and the Navy halfway. Company officials call the Super Hornet a proven, low-risk fighter, as compared to the F-35C, and they’ve also said they can further upgrade the current model to include new features to keep their airplane current with 21st century threats.

The Advanced Super Hornet, which Boeing developed with subcontractor Northrop Grumman, would include new features to provide for longer range, a reduced radar profile and other improvements. The advanced model includes conformal fuel tanks and internal weapons carriage enabling an aircraft to move its bombs or missiles off its under-wing or fuselage hard points.

Boeing spokeswoman Lisa Maull said a fully stocked Advanced Super Hornet would command a 10 percent to 15 percent premium above the current cost per aircraft, now in the low $50 million range.

“Of course, customers can specify which options they need based on their mission and cost requirements,” she said. Most of the new features would be available for use within about three years of an order, and current Super Hornet users could retrofit them to their existing aircraft.

In other words, if the Navy wanted, it could upgrade some of its existing E or F-model Super Hornets with the fuel tanks, weapons pod or other enhancements, instead of or in addition to ordering whole new aircraft.

What still isn’t clear is whether the Navy and defense officials will go ahead with making the case for sustaining the Super Hornet production line as part of next month’s abbreviated appropriations process or in the fiscal 2015 budget submission. Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were asked specifically last week about what they’d request from appropriators given the restoration to their budgets – but no dice, Dempsey said.

“You don’t expect we’re going to expose those to you today, I hope?”

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