Boeing presses Congress to have Navy buy more Super Hornets

Efforts could set up a clash with Joint Strike Fighter program advocates.

The Navy is facing a strike-fighter shortfall and Boeing Co. officials believe they have the answer to the service's problems: Buy dozens more of the proven F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

Despite no formal request from the Navy for more Super Hornets than they now plan to buy, the Chicago-based aerospace firm has been lobbying Congress to give service leaders the option to buy more of the fighters at a reduced price.

Doing so, Boeing officials say, will help the Navy avert the shortfall in its carrier-based fleet of strike fighters that the service expects to peak in 2017 at 69 aircraft and continue until Lockheed Martin's F-35C Joint Strike Fighter comes fully online in 2025.

Bob Gower, vice president of Boeing's F/A-18 programs, said that the company does not want to stand in the way of the Navy's purchases of the F-35C. The decision, he emphasized, isn't an "either/or" scenario.

But with the Pentagon's ever-increasing procurement budgets expected to flatten or even decline, Boeing's efforts could potentially set up a clash with F-35 advocates who fiercely guard that program's budget.

"The budget isn't going to grow, so this is coming out of the same pot of limited strike-fighter funding," said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst at the Teal Group.

The debate over the Navy's arsenal of strike fighters will almost certainly play out this week when the Senate Armed Services Committee marks up the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill.

Boeing officials hope the panel adds language in the Pentagon policy bill that would allow the Navy to pursue a third multiyear contract for Super Hornets to begin in fiscal 2010 and last through fiscal 2013. A multiyear agreement would allow the Navy to sign a long-term contract for a fixed price, providing stability for Boeing and reduced prices for the Navy.

Although not necessary this year, congressional approval of a multiyear pact in the fiscal 2009 bill would allow Boeing and the Navy to maximize savings by redesigning parts and otherwise cutting costs, Gower said.

The Navy already plans to buy 89 Super Hornets through the traditional procurement process after the current multiyear contract expires. But Boeing has given the Navy an unsolicited offer for 170 aircraft at $49.9 million apiece - a 7 to 10 percent cost savings per aircraft, Gower said.

Several lawmakers, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin and House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, have raised concerns about the shortfall. Others, especially lawmakers representing areas with Boeing manufacturing plants, have suggested that buying more Super Hornets may be the best solution to bridging the fighter gap.

The Super Hornet "is under budget, on time, and it has been a great aircraft for its purpose," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said at a Feb. 28 Armed Services hearing. "And, frankly, having a few more of them around during this transition period of time, I think is not something that we should shy away from, particularly realizing the gap that's coming."

An aide to House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee ranking member Todd Akin, R-Mo., said the St. Louis congressman is weighing all options, including buying more Super Hornets.

But Boeing could encounter several procedural hurdles, not the least of which is stricter language in the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill governing multiyear procurements. Lawmakers have been concerned these deals hinder congressional oversight and obligate future Congresses to pay for the programs.

The fiscal 2008 bill also states that multiyear contracts should yield a 10 percent cost savings. Multiyear proposals offering smaller savings "should only be considered if the [Defense] Department presents an exceptionally strong case," according to the conference report.

Meanwhile, the Navy will not complete a comprehensive assessment on the state of its current F/A-18 inventory until early this summer - well after the House and Senate panels mark up the fiscal 2009 bill. The analysis will provide more details on the impact and extent of the shortfall.

The Navy believes it can eek out 10,000 flying hours on its older Hornets, the precursor to the Super Hornets, a service spokesman said. Those aircraft initially were designed to fly for 6,000 hours, but later underwent overhauls to keep them flying for 8,000 hours.

But Gower said breathing new life into the older aircraft would require time-consuming and expensive maintenance and repairs. "That's part of the tradeoff they'll have to make as they go through the analysis," he added.

For its part, Lockheed Martin says it could accelerate the Navy's purchases of the JSF, but declined to provide details of how it would do so.

"Capacity does exist in the current program of record to increase procurement quantities in earlier production lots if the Department of the Navy decided to make that adjustment," Lockheed Martin officials said in an e-mail.