Super Hornets to the rescue?
Navy considers buying more F/A-18s as JSF program faces overhaul
By John Reed
For the F-35 Lightning II, the first week of March began with the Navy and Air Force saying they may slip their planes’ in service dates, saw the Defense Department comptroller declare that further cost growth would mean buying fewer aircraft, and the Pentagon showing an interest in continuing to buy more F/A 18E/F Super Hornets, which the F 35s are supposed to be replacing.
In the meantime, Pentagon and Lockheed Martin officials are say ing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has turned a corner.
“This restructured path forward is clear, and the industry team is committed to not only meeting the milestones that will be detailed in the baseline plan, but also in doing better,” Lockheed CEO Robert Stevens said during a March 4 conference call with reporters. “By that, I mean pursuing this pro gram on a daily basis with a heightened sense of urgency, exer cising the ‘buy-to-budget’ flexibili ty in the [restructured] plan as we focus on affordability of the air craft and the quality of the jets and adding back production jets.” Stevens said he has “absolute confidence” in Lockheed F-35 pro gram manager Dan Crowley, and would “continue to strengthen” Crowley’s team.
Stevens spoke alongside the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Ashton Carter, from Lockheed’s Fort Worth, Texas, F-35 produc tion facility. The two were there to brief the eight international JSF customers and F-35 subcontrac tors on the details of last month’s restructuring.
As announced Feb. 1 by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the restructuring included firing the Pentagon’s program manager, adding two years to the testing schedule, delaying full-rate pro duction until 2015, and withhold ing $614 million in performance fees from Lockheed.
But the restructuring also intro duced a “buy-to-budget” incentive that commits the Pentagon to buy ing more F-35s if Lockheed can run the program under budget.
Stevens said he hopes the changes would allow Lockheed to make up some of the 13 months that the program is behind sched ule. If the company can deliver air craft faster, it will help offset the rise in production price caused by slow initial deliveries, he said. In reshaping the program, Defense Department officials acted as if F-35 per-plane costs had breached the limits set by Nunn-McCurdy statute — which caps per-unit costs and requires the Defense Department to justify any over runs that exceed 15 percent of the program’s budget — as was pre dicted by various studies last year, according to the Feb. 24 Acquisi tion Decision Memorandum that formalized the restructuring.
Meanwhile, Navy and Pentagon officials are weighing an offer by Boeing to sell 124 F/A-18 Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers from 2010 to 2013. Last year, Con gress authorized Navy officials to buy the planes if they made up their mind by this month. In a Feb. 24 letter, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn asked lawmakers for more time to con sider the deal.
“In the last few days” the Navy received the “viable offer” from Boeing for the 124 new aircraft, Lynn wrote. “I am writing to inform you that the Department of Defense continues to explore the possibility” of buying the addition al Super Hornets.
In early February, senior Navy officials said that a Boeing multi year offer for 89 of the jets did not provide enough savings to war rant the purchase.
Navy officials said the new Boe ing offer would give the service 66 Super Hornets and 58 Growler electronic attack variants through 2013, which would save the ser vice 10 percent over buying the jets on a yearly basis.
“The Navy, working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, needs additional time to properly evaluate the offer” because Boe ing’s latest bid came in so close to the service’s deadline for informing Congress on whether it will buy the aircraft, a Navy statement said.
After a March 3 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sean Stackley, the Navy’s top weapons buyer, said the service would like ly finish evaluating the offer when Congress marks up the 2011 defense bill.
The Navy was already planning to buy some Super Hornets through 2013, but the multiyear contract would greatly increase the number. That would help the mitigate the so-called “fighter gap,” the projected shortfall of strike planes the Navy will face as older Hornets wear out faster than F-35s arrive to replace them.
Navy officials have estimated the gap could reach nearly 300 jets —
about 30 percent of the fighter fleet. Navy officials have discussed buying a total of 480 F-35Cs.
Doubts about JSF
Some lawmakers remain skepti cal of the Pentagon and Lockheed’s ability to keep the JSF program on track. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced during a March 4 Sen ate Armed Services Committee hearing that he is scheduling a new round of F-35 hearings.
Air Force Secretary Michael Don ley said at the hearing that it may take some time for the service’s Air Combat Command to determine when the service will be able to declare initial operational capabili ty for its F-35s. Earlier in the week, he told reporters that the IOC date may slip to 2015. Navy officials also recently said they may move back the IOC date for the F-35C carrier variant, now set for 2015.
In late February, the Pentagon’s comptroller said the Defense Department may reduce the num ber of F-35s it buys if the efforts to retool the program fail to contain costs.
“If there is [additional] cost growth, then we will have to reduce the buy,” Robert Hale said March 3 at a precision-strike con ference in Arlington, Va. “I don’t see us getting additional funding” above the $708 billion in the Obama administration’s 2011 defense spending proposal.
Carter, asked whether any cus tomers are considering reducing their buys if costs and delays con tinue, said, “I have not been hear ing that.” But he said “the princi pal risk to a program this large that has this many customers in it” is those customers walking because of cost growth.
The Navy Staff’s air warfare director threw a further wrinkle into the works March 3, floating the possibility that the Marine Corps might buy some F-35C cata pult-takeoff aircraft, not just the planned short-takeoff-and-verti cal-landing F-35Bs. Navy Depart ment officials are considering giv ing the Corps some of the cata pult-ready F-35Cs so they can fly from aircraft carriers, Rear Adm. David “Deke” Philman, the Navy’s air warfare director, said at the Arlington conference. □
Christopher P. Cavas and Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.
The "Death Spiral" is on!
Bet they wish they hadn't chopped all those TomCat's.