Navy Captain Francis Morley, program manager for the F-18 family of jets, and his boss Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis at today's ceremony celebrating the 35th anniversary of the first Hornet.

Navy Captain Francis Morley (left), program manager for the F-18 family of jets, and his boss Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis (right) at today’s ceremony celebrating the 35th anniversary of the first Hornet.

PATUXENT RIVER NAVAL AIR STATION: “My job is to preserve options and that’s what I do,” said Capt. Francis Morley, Navy program manager for the F-18 fighter family. Will the Navy press ahead to buy more F-18s in the face of what seems pretty determined opposition from the Office of Secretary of Defense, eager to preserve F-35 funding? “I’ll let the folks in the building figure out what numbers they want,” Morley said.

In October, the Navy issued and then withdrew a pre-solicitation for “up to 36” F/A-18E/Fs and EA-18 Growlers to be bought in fiscal year 2015, when current long-term plans call for zero. “That was an error — my responsibility,” Morley said. “It got everybody excited, [but] it was no indication of what the intent was for FY ’15. That was purely the program maintaining options.”

In fact, Morley said, withdrawing the pre-solicitation was a formality that didn’t actually take any options off the table: “The decision space is still here.”

What about rumors that the Navy withdrew the F-18 pre-solicitation because the Office of the Secretary of Defense came down like a ton of bricks on a potential threat to its favorite plane, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter?

“Didn’t happen,” said Morley. [But do we believe him? -- the editor]

“We spend too much time on this F-18 vs. JSF [question],” added Morley’s boss, Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis, who oversees all Navy fighter programs. No matter what happens with the Hornets, the Navy F-35C  won’t enter service until 2019 and will take years to enter the fleet in numbers. “Until JSF does arrive in the fleet,” Gaddis said, “the Super Hornet is Navy aviation. That’ s our striking power, it’s the mainstay of our force structure, and there’s nothing else out there.”

“Y’all talk a lot about leadership’s commitment to the JSF, but leadership is just as committed to the Super Hornet and to the Growler,” Gaddis said, and it’s going to invest in upgrading and sustaining both aircraft for two more decades. Ah, but whose leadership, we wonder?

Even Gaddis’s ringing endorsement of the F-18, however, doesn’t actually answer the question of whether the Navy hopes to buy more in 2015, let alone whether OSD will allow it.

Boeing is “Bullish”

While the Navy was cagey, Boeing seemed almost cocky.

“I can easily envision a production line going beyond 2020,” said Mike Gibbons, who runs the Super Hornet and Growler programs at Boeing. Despite the current official plan to end purchases of the jet in 2014, “there could be several more years of buys by the US Navy.”

In fact, he told reporters in a Hornet hanger here at Pax River, he’d bet money on it. And betting its own money, tens of millions of dollars of it, is exactly what Boeing may have to do to keep production going on certain long-lead-time items if it doesn’t get a definitive answer before March 2014.

Even if the Pentagon keeps F-18s out of the ’15 request, the plane’s supporters on Capitol Hill — most notably Rep. Randy Forbes – might manage to vote them back into the budget. But “I’m not looking for Congress to add jets,” Gibbons said: He is “bullish” that the Pentagon will ask for more.

Outside the US, Boeing is pursuing at least nine potential foreign customers, although not all of them all of them have committed to buying any new aircraft, let alone show a particular preference for the F-18 family: “Brazil, Malaysia, Canada, Denmark, Kuwait” – which already has older-model Hornets — “[and] several countries in the Mideast that we don’t discuss by name,” Gibbons said, and he has hopes the Australians will buy more planes on top of their recent purchase. Win even a few of those sales, he said, and “at 24 [planes] per year that gets you beyond 2020 easily.” (Australian officials have said publicly they do not plan to buy more F-18s.)

The line currently builds 48 jets per year and is headed down to 36 (which was, not coincidentally, the maximum number in the withdrawn solicitation). It can go as low as 24 before it becomes uneconomic. As you lose economies of scale in ordering supplies, said Gibbons, “our practical minimum is two jets per month.”

At that rate, and buying a year’s worth of aircraft at a time instead of signing a bulk-buy “multi-year procurement” contract, the price of the jet Boeing delivers (which doesn’t include the engine) will rise from the current $37 million to somewhere closer to $40 million. (A complete Super Hornet, with engine and electronic warfare gear, currently costs about $51 million, he said, while a fully equipped Growler costs about $60 million).

Currently, “there is no plan to shut down the production line,” Gibbons said, which would require the Navy to sign a shut-down contract costing “hundreds of millions of dollars.” And, he went on, “I actually believe, based on the amount of interest at the top [in the military], that we won’t be embarking on that production shutdown next year.”

In fact, between the hoped-for future F-18s and the F-15s Boeing is building for the Air Force, Gibbons predicted that the company’s Saint Louis aircraft factory will be able to keep making those aircraft until the next generation comes along: the Air Force’s long range bomber, its future air-superiority fighter the F-X, its proposed T-X trainer, and then the Navy’s UCLASS drone and future F/A-XX strike fighter. “We’re putting a lot of investment in all of those,” he said. “We will never have a production gap in Saint Louis.”

What Gibbons didn’t mention was that most of those aircraft are more aspirations than actual programs – the F-X and F/A-XX are especially hypothetical – and it’s far from guaranteed they’ll happen, let alone that Boeing will win them. In fact, in the current budgetary chaos on Capitol Hill, it’s hard to predict how much money the Pentagon will have next year, let alone what it will spend it on.

Comments

  • Don Bacon

    Ah, when Freeedberg is on, he’s on. (The OSD “shrink” is forgotten.)

    I like Capt. Francis “Spanky” Morley who earned his commission through the Navy Reserve Officer Training Course program at San Diego State University, as much as I like Capt. Beau “Abu” Duarte who now manages the UCLASS program — another F-35C alternative — also at Patuxent -River. Abu has an impressive CV (in both senses).

    Just color me an ex-army guy who likes these Navy people whom I truly believe are inspired by Admiral Greenert, a thinker. Unusual officers. They are fitting people to take advantage of the biggest failure of the F-35 program (and that’s saying something), the F-35C “carrier” variant, AKA the Lakehurst hangar queen with a serious tailhook (or bellyhook) problem.

    We all look forward to the DOD FY2015 budget submission, due this month. (Also the FY2013 DOT&E test report.)

    • Marauder 2048

      Your throbbing bromance aside, what exactly do you find impressive about these officers?

      • maitaiprincess

        Read their bios then decide…..

        • Marauder 2048

          I did. If they were true Greenert-style “thinkers” they’d be touting novel payloads rather than UCLASS or additional Super Hornets.

    • Marauder 2048

      DOT&E hasn’t exactly been kind to the Super Hornet either…

  • ELP

    The F-35C hasn’t shown any proof of life of being able to trap aboard a carrier; its mission systems are a mess; it isn’t affordable.

    Neither the Super Hornet nor the F-35C will be able to take on emerging threats. A “Pacific Pivot” means that the USN is well on its way toward having an obsolete-to-the-threat carrier air wing by the 2020s. But at least the Super Hornet is useful for many other missions.

    • Simon Fraser

      Eric, you need some serious help for your terminal case of F-35 Derangement Syndrome.

      On the other hand, the entertainment value of your judgement is beyond priceless.

      Carry on, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.

      • ELP

        “Derangement Syndrome” are for those that follow Lockheed Martin F-35 talking points.

    • michael

      the super bugs are pretty good and you don’t have to worry about them. Also the F35 is a solid plane, but not for the navy. Cancel the F35C, develop a twin engine fighter from it, that can be operated form a carrier.

  • OMEGATALON

    If Congress is still uncertain with the F-35 program, they should go ahead and buy the 30-year old F/A-18; but Congress should allow Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to buy the F-35 to offset lost production of additional F/A-18 jets.

    • cvxxx

      Saudi Arabia is not a ally, but a frenemy.

  • Douglas Paul Cox

    Buying the Super Hornet in the first place may have been a mistake considering it lacks the range and payload of the A-6 Intruder.

    • Mitchell Fuller

      In interim need to bring back refurbished F-14s. Navy lost critical capabilities with retirement Super Bug can’t fill. One key capability is un refueled range.

      • mt noise

        There aren’t any F-14′s left. Because Iran still flies them, the retired ones were scrapped to prevent parts from being sold.

  • cvxxx

    The smart thing to do would be a new fighter for the navy canceling the F-35. The doctrine for the F-35 is BVR combat. But there is no way the F-35 can dogfight. many countries will learn how to build large numbers of combat aircraft and just take losses.

    What that would mean is the inferior performance of the f-35 will need escort fighters to accompany it into hostile territory.

    • Douglas Paul Cox

      Countries with, apparently, a LOT of money.

      The doctrine for the F-22 is also BVR, by the way, but the Raptor will kill you before you even know it is in the neighborhood.

      • cvxxx

        The F-22 can dog fight. The F-35 is dead meat. Of course that is assuming no improvements,no advance in sensor technology.

        • Douglas Paul Cox

          How do we know the F-35 can’t dog fight?

    • Don Bacon

      Are you guys sure that current ROE allow BVR?

      • cvxxx

        I have little idea if the Vietnam restriction was lifted. If not then this whole F-35 is a bust.

    • Mitchell Fuller

      F-35 is a strike aircraft not a dogfighter, plus its ability to manuever is less than current fighters due to structural considerations, DOD keeps lowering the bar on this.

      Too much money, too much time, too many problems, put it to pasture before it both breaks defense budget and leaves us vulnerable in air arena both in capabilities and numbers.

  • Douglas Paul Cox

    The military should have learned something from the TFX program of the 1960s and the Air Forces decision to buy the F-4 Phantom. Instead of building different versions of one aircraft for the different services, build a fighter for the Navy and see if the Air Force can use it. This, however, would not have given the Marines a STOVAL aircraft.

  • Vpanoptes

    Wait, wait, what’s that noise? Oh, it’s just Lockheed’s PR machine spooling up. I can hear it from where I am, and that’s almost 3000 km from Georgia….

  • 02144pomroy

    If any of you guys have kids in the armed services, get them out. They are looking more like cannon fodder with every passing day. The Obama rump swabs now running the Pentagon have spent too much money and have too much pride to admit that the F-35 is a dog and is putting our pilots at risk with an inferior aircraft.

  • ask2wice

    F-35 for the Navy was a fools errand from the start. McNamara surely would have approved – that pencil pusher – but real air war-fighters in the Nav have always known better. So where does this go from here?

    Watch for addition orders of the Advanced Super Hornet, fewer orders of F-35, and the slower adoption of an all F-35 carrier air fleet. There is just too much money invested in F-35 for it to ever be substantially scaled back or to simply go away (for the Navy anyway), and too much politics asserting itself over sound war-fighting procurement. But hasn’t it always been that way? At least since 1945 when our nation was actually threatened by a REAL enemy? Since then, our wars have all been nothing more than bluff (Cold War) and fluff (all the rest – with maybe the exception of Korea). And YES, it pains me to say that given all of our blood and guts sacrifices, but Ike warned us. Unfortunately, we can’t (no, NOT didn’t, CAN’T) listen. Our economy would simply not survive it.

    So “Go F-35″! Get used to it …

  • ask2wice

    BTW – Imagine what we’d be looking at if Northrop-Grumman would have developed the next gen fighter for the Navy! A twin-engined sci-fi looking beauty that had legs, could excel at both BVR and dogfighting, as well as bombing, was super-stealthy, thrust-vectored and had all of the electronic bells and whistles? Yeah – picture that! What a shame …

  • Douglas Paul Cox

    Presumabely,Lockheed knows how to build a fighter plane than
    can dogfight, and there is nothing revolutionary about the F-35 that should affect maneuverability — unless there is a weight issue — outside
    of the short take off and landing (STOVL) characteristics of the B
    variant being produced for the Marines.

    There is nothing new about U.S. fighters being less nimble that than fighters built be other nations, that is why the Navy and Air Force fighter weapons schools train with disimilar aircraft. The idea is to use the strengths of your fighter to counter the strengths of the enemy’s fighter.

    Meanwhile, I have read that test pilots have said the flight performance envelope of the F-35 is similar to the legacy Hornet.

    • ask2wice

      At close to 100 million per copy, and given that the F-35 is, what, 25 or so years newer, I’d have expected much better than a “similar” flight performance envelope to the legacy fighters. A whole lot better, stealth included!

      • Douglas Paul Cox

        Flight performanca envelope refers to such things as maneuverability, speed, climb rate, service ceiling, load factor, etc. We’re not reiventing the wheel here. We are adding stealth and electronic sensors to the airframe, and that’s where the higher cost comes from. Critics are arguing that the F-35 will be poor at best at dogfighting, but if it has a similar flight performance envelope to legacy fighters such as the Hornet, that suggest it will be a capable dogfighter. Stealth and those new sensor, howerver, will allow the F-35 to kill enemy fighters before they are aware of its presence.

        • ask2wice

          Maybe. Unless IRST + supermaneuverability (SU-3X family, PAK-FA) catches them first, or a new type of radar is developed that negates stealth, or a new infrared or active satellite tracking system is developed by the Russians or Chinese, or they get off shot 1 but are then jumped by 10X the number of cheaper enemy fighters – or this or that or many things!

          The Air Force wants it? That’s fine. A “B” model for the Marines? That’s OK too. But should the Navy have to rely (and spend mightily) on this group-think, compromised, unspectacular, jack-of-all-trades master-of-none single-engine aircraft as it’s front-line carrier offensive/defensive fighter well into the 2030′s and beyond? I personally don’t think so! But it’s too late to do anything about it now. Or is it? How about 3 for 1?

          • Douglas Paul Cox

            The Chinese, Russian, heck, even the Iranians are trying to build stealth fighters. There must be something to this stealth thing, maybe the Navy should stay on board, but only to replace the Legacy C/D Hornet. A new program fighter should replace the Super Hornet when the time comes.

  • idahoguy101

    The JSF is an improvement on what the F-117 could do. A stealthy bomber which carries a small weapons load that can operate in the darkness.

    The JSF air to air potential is poor. It can’t out accelerate, out maneuver, or speed away from its opponents. If it carries external stores it isn’t stealthy. If it’s visually sighted by enemies it is likely to die!

    At this time the best options for the Air Force is to buy Super Hornets for their new Strike Fighter and EF-18 Growlers for electronic warfare. Along with buying improved versions of the F-22 which Congress will allow foreign allies to buy.

  • idahoguy101

    Operating Aircraft Carriers in the Western Pacific would be suicidal for the US Navy. This area is where only B-2 bombers, F-22 Raptors, and Submarines can operate with a reasonable degree of survivability until the PLA area control can be severely downgraded by attrition warfare. Early in any war a Carrier could only get off a single strike before being heavily attacked by Chinese forces

  • idahoguy101

    CVN’s are good for intervention and threat of intervention in the Third World by the Navy/Maine Corps team.Using them against the Chinese military would be suicidal.

    The Navy could either buy the F-35B model, or keep buying Super Hornets until a proper Naval Stealth Fighter-Bomber is developed. But where is the budget for that? We’ve painted ourselves into a corner folks…