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Sales Outlook Brightens For Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet Fighter

JAN 6, 2017 @ 11:40 AM

Loren Thompson

When President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted on December 22 that he had asked Boeing to price-out an alternative to the stealthy F-35 fighter based on the company’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, he stunned the defense industry. Although Super Hornet is the most successful carrier-based tactical aircraft the Navy has ever operated, it has long been assumed that production would cease in the near future to make room in the budget for the next-generation F-35.

Trump’s tweet made many observers wonder whether that will still be the case during his presidency. The F-35 is being bought in three different variants to meet the future combat-aircraft needs of the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy plus a dozen overseas allies. The Navy version is the most expensive, and is generally thought to have the least appeal to foreign customers because of the unique features it requires to accomplish catapult launches and arrested landings on aircraft carriers.

Its development has also lagged behind that of the Air Force and Marine Corps variants, which are now operational with their respective services. The delay in fielding the F-35C — the naval variant — has kept alive hopes that the Super Hornet production line at Boeing’s Saint Louis manufacturing complex might continue humming for many more years, and Trump’s tweet capped a year in which several developments seemed to justify that conclusion.

First, the Navy has stated a requirement for additional Super Hornets to fill the capability gap created by delayed delivery of carrier-based F-35s. Second, the Obama Administration has approved the sale of 40 new Super Hornets to Kuwait, raising the prospect of additional F/A-18 sales in the Persian Gulf region since Washington is not offering the F-35 there. Third, Canada announced in November that it would buy 18 Super Hornets as an interim step while launching a competition to replace its aging fleet of CF-18 fighters.

The Canadian move is especially intriguing because Ottawa’s existing fighter fleet consists mainly of earlier versions of the same airframe on which the Super Hornet is based. Although Canada was one of the original U.S. allies participating in the F-35 development program, its role was put in doubt by a domestic political imbroglio centering on the new fighter’s cost. Now the government of prime minister Justin Trudeau says it will hold an open competition to decide what fighter should be bought to modernize its fleet.

So whereas Boeing began 2016 with the disappointing news that the Super Hornet had lost a hard-fought competition to the F-35 in Denmark, it ended the year with additional sales prospects in the U.S., Canada and Middle East. Trump’s surprise tweet on December 22 was like a Christmas present to workers in Saint Louis, and his suggestion that the F/A-18 might be configured in a fashion comparable to the widely touted F-35 certainly isn’t going to hurt overseas sales prospects.

The president-elect may have been doing no more in his tweet than trying to leverage Boeing’s plane to drive down the price of the Lockheed Martin F-35, but in the process he has awakened hopes of more Super Hornet production to come. That would be good news for Boeing, which is struggling to stay in the fighter business as F-35 makes inroads in places like Israel, Japan and South Korea.

Another way in which a Trump Administration could be good news for Boeing’s fighter prospects is that he is a strong supporter of Israel, and will undoubtedly continue Washington’s longstanding commitment to preserving the Jewish state’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors. That policy means nobody in Washington is ready to offer the stealthy F-35 to other countries in the region, for fear that Israeli air defenses might be unable to defeat it. Super Hornet is the next-best option for those countries if they wish to buy American.

While Super Hornet may not offer the same degree of signature reduction as the F-35, it is an exceptionally survivable aircraft designed from its inception to combine low-observable technology, electronic warfare, reduced ballistic vulnerability and innovative tactics in a highly resilient package. A jamming variant of the airframe designated the EA-18G Growler with similar operating characteristics can accompany Super Hornet on penetrating missions to suppress enemy defenses with both electronic countermeasures and kinetic weapons.

Boeing was a partner on the super-stealthy F-22 fighter built for the U.S. Air Force, so it has a deep understanding of how to manage the telltale signs that would reveal a plane’s presence to hostile sensors. The F/A-18s it offers to Canada and other prospective buyers will likely include extensive low-observable technology, conformal fuel tanks and enclosed weapons pods to make the plane difficult to track. When these airframe features are combined with the escort jamming provided by the Growler, the plane will be nearly invisible to most adversaries.

The plane’s agile multifunction radar built by Raytheon and defensive countermeasures suite manufactured by BAE Systems further enhance survivability, as do standoff weapons that deliver pinpoint accuracy without requiring close proximity to intended targets. A variety of on-board electronic systems provide pilots with situational awareness far superior to what most adversaries will enjoy — a key factor in surviving and successfully accomplishing missions.

Time will tell whether the new president’s tweet about Super Hornet has real consequences for the program, but the program’s sales outlook seems to be brightening. Boeing is moving the headquarters of its defense unit to the nation’s capital with an eye to marketing its military products more effectively, and extending Super Hornet production is high on the company’s list of priorities. If the naval version of the F-35 falters, or overseas allies decide they want to buy a more mature fighter from America, Super Hornet could stay in the game for decades to come.

Original post forbes.com

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