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[UPDATED with Navy retraction] So is the Navy buying more Super Hornets or not? A solicitation notice posted on FedBizOps.gov sparked heated media speculation this week that the service might extend production of the current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program struggles.

It’s true the US Navy is the least enthusiastic of the three services buying the F-35. It’s also true that Boeing, which makes the Super Hornet, has touted it worldwide as the right-here, right-now alternative to the F-35. And, of course, there are plenty of F-35 critics — including a few in Congress — who’d love the speculation to be right. But if you look closely at the notice — and if you actually ask the Navy about it — you find there’s a lot less there than meets the eye.

[UPDATED: In fact, late Thursday, the Navy withdrew what it is now calling a “presolicitation” altogether.  “The posting was the result of pre-decisional and internal budget discussions and was posted erroneously,” said Vice Adm. David Dunaway, chief of Naval Air Systems Command, in a Friday night statement. “We took immediate actions and retracted the solicitation.”

Given that the notice originally went up October 17 and wasn’t retracted until the 31st, that “immediate” is a little dubious, but the Navy is definitely nailing the coffin shut on speculation. For our reasoning why the speculation was wrong to begin with, read on. ]

Start with the first line of the solicitation itself: “The Naval Air Systems Command intends to solicit and negotiate a Fixed Price Incentive Firm, sole source contract with the Boeing Company, for the procurement of up to 36 FY15 (Lot 39) F/A-18 E/F and EA-18G aircraft. ”

Note three crucial phrases:

The first is “up to 36,” which could mean “zero.”

The second is “FY15,” i.e. fiscal year 2015, for which the President’s budget hasn’t even been finalized yet, let alone submitted to a gridlocked Congress.

The third is “and EA-18G aircraft,” the Navy electronic warfare jet known as the Growler. The EA-18G is derived from the F/A-18E/F design, as its numerical designation implies, but its electronics and its mission are very different: It’s a replacement for the geriatric EA-6B Prowler radar-jamming plane, not a fighter aircraft. So even if the Navy did decide to buy more than zero aircraft and actually got the 2015 funding to do so, it might buy Growlers, not Super Hornets.

So I asked the Navy to clarify what this really meant. Naval Air Systems Command released the solicitation to lay the procedural groundwork for “a potential option for any prospective requirements that may emerge in fiscal 2015, USN or FMS,” said NAVAIR spokesperson Marcia Hart. “[But] currently, there is no fiscal 2015 or subsequent requirements for additional F/A-18E/Fs or EA-18Gs…..We were just ensuring that if a decision is made to add more aircraft in the fiscal 2015 budget, we would have the proper acquisition process in place to facilitate.” (Italics mine).

Note the words “no…requirements.” In the Pentagon, “requirement” is a term of art, implying a formalized assessment process has produced a written document that says, in essence, “we plan to buy this.” It’s perfectly possible for a requirement never to lead to an actual procurement. But without a requirement, a procurement can’t proceed, and there’s no requirement here. (The Pentagon can buy whatever it wants during a war if the need is urgent. That exception has been used to rush into service such things as body armor and roadside bomb detection for Afghanistan and Iraq, not for Navy jets).

Note also those three little letters, “FMS.” That stands for “Foreign Military Sales“: export contracts in which the Defense Department acts as an intermediary between the US arms maker and a foreign client. In other words, if the Navy ever makes use of this “potential option,” it might well be on behalf of a friendly nation, not for itself.

It is possible that the Navy might buy more Super Hornets in 2015, and this solicitation keeps that door open, just in case. But that is extremely unlikely to happen.

 

Updated 1:00 pm Monday with Navy statement on retracting the solicitation.

Comments

  • Don Bacon

    Why might the Navy be buying more F/A-18s?

    On Nov 11, 2010 the first Navy F-35C Carrier Variant arrived at Patuxent River NAS. Since that day almost three years ago, the F-35 test fleet has racked up over 10,000 flight hours. The tech people have been busy at Edwards, the Air Force has been fully occupied at Eglin, and the Marines have flown off land and from a mini-carrier.

    But none of those 10,000 hours have been off of a carrier, and probably won’t be for the foreseeable future, principally because the tailhook doesn’t work. There are other reasons too.

    The Super Hornet is Navy’s Plan B.

    Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Greenert is hedging Navy’s bets on the Lightning II by extending the F-18 and by keeping F-35 production low. The Navy has only committed to 22 F-35C thru LRIP-7, compared to the Air Force’s 88 A’s. The total planned buy is 260 c’s for Navy, only 15% of the AF buy of 1,763 F-35A.

    Why is Greenert hedging on the F-35? We can only guess, but here are some possibilities and indications.

    –Unfavorable test result returns from NAS Patuxent River. We had plenty of those up to June, but nothing recently either good or bad. We haven’t heard anything factual recently on development testing either at Pax River or from the Air Force tests at Edwards AFB, but certainly Admiral Greenert is getting feedback from Navy testers. The Integrated Test Force at Naval Air Systems Command currently flies five F-35Bs (Marine variant) and four F-35Cs (carrier variant). The B’s have been active, but not the C’s.

    –High F-35 production cost. We don’t get anything from the project office, but Greenert’s Navy does all the F-35 procurement so he knows. We knows the budget figures out to $236 million per F-35C this fiscal year. Ouch.

    –Carrier impact. Production delays on Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter aircraft have contributed to major cost increases and schedule delays for the $43 billion Navy program to build three aircraft carriers, and could eventually lead to pricey retrofits to the initial ship after it’s delivered. And there may be a reduction in carrier fleet size.

    –The F-35C has had continuing problems with the tailhook which aren’t solved yet. The tail hook is located too close to the main landing gear, so the springs supporting the arresting cable don’t have enough time to raise it after the wheels run over it for the hook to engage. In fact, the F-35C has the shortest distance between the tail hook and the wheels among a dozen past and current aircraft deployed by the US Navy, Will it require a major redesign?

    –Admiral Greenert isn’t a great believer in F-35 stealth, to put it mildly. Greenert: “All the stealth in the world ain’t gonna penetrate everything.” Stealth certainly shrinks an aircraft’s radar return, but it cannot eliminate it. Lockheed Martin won’t confirm or deny alleged stealth flaws, saying the information is classified. And of course the Joint Program Office is no help — they don’t even do quality assurance.

    –Skeptical of stealth, the Navy has built up its fleet of Growlers. For Navy, it’s the Growler aircraft, an F/A-18 variant, not the F-35, that will be the cutting edge of future Naval strikes against future “anti-access area denial” defenses.

    • PolicyWonk

      To add to the above, the USAF has determined that it is “all-in” in stealth, and therefore is lagging far behind the navy in electronic warfare. The navy has the Growler, the USAF has nothing.
      The navy, in this respect, is hedging its bets. IMO, this is taking the conservative, and probably smarter road.

      • Don Bacon

        probably smarter, for sure. Greenert impresses (and shows up the other three).

        The opposition has had twenty years to develop anti-stealth radar. The S-400 SAM system is a potential risk to the F-35 due to its use of VHF radars. In any case, Greenert has it covered.

    • mümtaz

      I adore F-18’s. Here are some of F-18’s really great photos:

      F/A-18 Super Hornet Pictures

  • CharleyA

    The NDAA for FY2014 has language for AP for 22/24 Super Hornets to acquire in FY2015:

    “ITEMS OF SPECIAL INTEREST

    F/A-18E/F advance procurement

    The budget request contained no funds for advance procurement of F/A-18E/F aircraft. The F/A-18E/F is a naval strike fighter aircraft designed for both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

    The committee notes that the Department of the Navy’s strike fighter shortfall forecast has decreased from last year’s predicted 56 aircraft in fiscal year 2025 to a prediction of 18 aircraft in fiscal year 2023 for fiscal year 2014. However, the committee understands that these revised shortfall numbers are based on a decreased projected rate of F/A-18 utilization, successful high flight hour inspections on the fleet of F/A-18A through F/A-18D aircraft that would extend their useful flight hours to 9,000, and a service life extension program for 150 F/A-18A through D aircraft that would extend the useful flight hours of those aircraft to 10,000. The committee further notes that the Department of the Navy considers its plan to maintain the required strike fighter inventory with some risk, and the committee believes that a fiscal year 2015 procurement of additional F/A-18E/F aircraft, which have a useful life of 9,000 hours, would reduce the Department of the Navy’s risk in maintaining the required inventory of strike fighter aircraft.

    Therefore, the committee recommends an increase of $75.0 million for advance procurement of F/A-18E/F aircraft and encourages the Department of the Navy to budget for 24 additional F/A-18E/F aircraft in fiscal year 2015.”

    • USNVO

      I wonder who wrote that, someone from Missouri perhaps?

      Of course, since the FY14 budget hasn’t been passed yet, it meansexactly nothing.

  • EisenhowerJones

    Don the reason why they have not flown off a carrier is because they require EMALS, currently there is no carrier equipped with EMALS.

    • Don Bacon

      No they can launch with steam.
      news report, Jul 27, 2011
      F-35C Back At Lakehurst Test Center

      The U.S. Navy is moving forward with specialized testing of its F-35C, which is designed for use on aircraft carriers, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.

      Jet CF-3 arrived yesterday at the Navy’s test center there to begin catapult assisted takeoff and arrested landing testing, says Joe DellaVedova, Joint Strike Fighter spokesman for the Pentagon. Catapult testing for the single-engine, stealthy Lockheed Martin fighter could begin as soon as today.

      Next week, the service plans to continue work on jet-blast deflector (JBD) testing. Trials earlier this month focused on validating jet-blast exhaust models for the F-35C as they interact with the deflectors used on aircraft carrier decks.

      The next step in this series of trials, which will follow the cat/trap testing, is to replicate operations on a ship. This will call for placing the F-35C and a Boeing F-18 Super Hornet in front of and behind the JBD as they would operate on the ship. This will ensure that the cooling-vein pattern on the JBD can adequately protect both the deck and the aircraft in line behind the JBD in advance of a rapid launch of carrier aircraft.

      Following this phase, the Navy will begin “degraded catapult” launch testing at Lakehurst, DellaVedova says. During these trials, the Navy will use catapults with varying levels of steam to simulate various levels of service by the system on the ship.

      The problem is the tailhook– it’s Tailhook Scandal 2.0

    • tom

      This is all kind of a replay. Any of you guys remember when the F18 replaced the F14? Or the F4 being replaced by the F14 for that matter. It’s always the same discussion.

  • ELP

    Be interesting to watch. Let Boeing close up Super production and then that will be the end of new (and working) carrier strike aircraft as we know it. The outlier design of the hook placement on the F-35C means it is at high risk of never trapping properly on a carrier. As for the F-35B, no one at this time has demonstrated a change of its’ $27M engine aboard ship. Then there are the numerous other failures with the F-35 and 12 years after contract award having nothing anywhere near a combat-capable aircraft design. There is a strategic “pivot” going on. The kind where some countries are thinking, “don’t interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake.

  • Don Bacon

    Somebody high up stepped on Admiral Greenert. Shame. There is so much corruption.

    US Navy cancels Super Hornet pre-solicitation order

    • CharleyA

      Somebody jumped the gun…

      “”The pre-solicitation was removed from FebBizOpps because, currently, there is no fiscal 2015 or subsequent requirements for additional F/A-18E/Fs or E/A-18Gs,” the navy tells Flightglobal in a statement.”

      Interesting use of “currently” – sorta leaves the door open…

  • lisa ferguson

    Wow what a contrived, misunderstandable article that was!! It’s just so typcial of HP to prattle on about an issue that could be simply told in a much lesser form. Being a much longer poster here than my “profile” dicatates because I had a different name, had my badges, fans and status as a super user of the highest level taken away from me and my real name posted as a result, I have learned that the BEST way to understand what any article that HP or it’s affiliates write about is to read it carefully, try hard to sift through the blatant BS and then when all is said and done, belieive the polar opposite of what they tell you!! That’s the ONLY way to get uselful information from AOL’s choice of the mainstream media nonsense that Time Warner in all it’s manifestations has chosen to totally confuse us to the point of just acting robotic and buying all the crap they try to sell us!! Good luck to all of my fellow critics of the MSM!! Especially the bottom of the barrel ones like this!! LOL

  • Bill Morgan

    WE DO NOT NEED THIS NEW AIRCRAFT!!!!!!IT IS A WASTE OF MONEY!!!!!

  • Don Bacon

    Because there is considerable risk to Navy in the joint F-35 program the Senate budget for FY2014 has language for AP for 22/24 Super Hornets to to acquired in FY2015:

    Committee Reports
    113th Congress (2013-2014)
    House Report 113-102
    “ITEMS OF SPECIAL INTEREST
    F/A-18E/F advance procurement
    . . .The committee further notes that the Department of the Navy considers its plan to maintain the required strike fighter inventory with some risk, and the committee believes that a fiscal year 2015 procurement of additional F/A-18E/F aircraft, which have a useful life of 9,000 hours, would reduce the Department of the Navy’s risk in maintaining the required inventory of strike fighter aircraft. Therefore, the committee recommends an increase of $75.0 million for advance procurement of F/A-18E/F aircraft and encourages the Department of the Navy to budget for 24 additional F/A-18E/F aircraft in fiscal year 2015.”
    http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/cpquery/?&sid=cp113sJKdk&r_n=hr102.113&dbname=cp113&&sel=TOC_208228&

    So Admiral Greenert acted to “Remain ready to meet current challenges, today — Build a relevant and capable future force” which is his responsibility. He followed Senate guidance and posted a Presolicitation for more Super Hornets and Growlers.

    Then despite the risk Admiral Greenert got told to cancel his Plan B.

    Oct 31, 2013
    US Navy cancels Super Hornet pre-solicitation order
    http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/us-navy-cancels-super-hornet-pre-solicitation-order-392426/

    FY15 (Lot 39) F/A-18 E/F and EA-18G
    Solicitation Number: N00019-13-R-0102
    Notice Type: Cancellation
    https://www.fbo.gov/?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=3eacc47d287da767782a854c28ac7fb7&tab=core&_cview=0

    Admiral Greenert has had to renege on his responsibilities to satisfy the LM JSF juggernaut. Greenert has previously said: ” I as a service chief would like to have more authority and more accountability in acquisitions.”

  • Leftseat

    The Armed Services should scrap the ridiculously overpriced and underperforming F-35 and F-22 experiments and purchase high performing and very affordable Sukhoi aircraft. The Sukhois can fly rings around these recent U.S. experiments in poor performance aircraft at one third the cost. And if it came to a shooting/bombing war, the Sukhois would win the day without breaking a sweat !

    • Nikki Santoro

      Russian crap. Sure the demo models are great but the actual bought planes will have major issues. Lucky to receive the whole order and on time. And parts and service, forget about it! So they will be like non-stealth stealth aircraft if you catch my drift.

  • liephman88

    De Plane Boss! De Plane!

  • Brian

    When are they going to build a plane that runs on solar and wind power?

    • Bob Macfarlane

      There are already a number of solar powered aircraft.

  • Mario Mims

    How many of these fighters will be shared with our so-called ” allies ” as a gesture of
    our curteousy and friendship only to wind-up in the hands of North Korea and Communist China and the Soviets to see what our latest fighters are packing ?

  • Gumaro Valle

    F-35 neither the F-22 could live up to the expectations since the very beginning and china and russia are showing off copy cats already.. are they bluffing or for real they stole the technology or even worst someone in the pentagon sold sold the blue prints and they did it for 1/3 less money …war is a racket…

  • qcubed

    Why not buy more? Then, we can let all the poor southern families whose SNAP benefits are lost…you know, the southerners who vote for bagger congressmen, well they can EAT those hornets when they get hungry.

  • Keith

    I wonder how much longer it will take before the Navy drastically cuts the number of F35’s it is scheduled to buy and instead buys more super hornets. Unless a miracle comes along that drastically reduces the cost of the F35 it seems like that is the only way the Navy will be able to afford enough air wings for all of our $13B super targets.

  • mümtaza

    I adore these F-18’s. Here are some of F-18’s really great photos :

    F/A-18 Super Hornet Pictures