Until recently, Boeing's combat jet was on life support, with work at its St. Louis factory slowing to a crawl as orders dwindled. But that was before Congress approved a $10.1 billion sale to Kuwait, Canada said it would take 18 of the twin-engine fighter and Trump said the Pentagon is "looking seriously at a big order."
Now Dan Gillian, who heads the Boeing fighter-jet program, is plotting upgrades to keep the F/A-18 flying through the 2040s – and even looking at increasing the production rate. The U.S. Navy may need at least 100 of the Super Hornets over the next five years while it waits for Lockheed's next version of the F-35. Boeing also sees opportunities for additional sales from India, Finland and Switzerland.
"We have reinvented this factory four or five times," Gillian said during a recent February morning stroll through the Super Hornet's final assembly line. In the background, a jet's nose barrel was being riveted together. Now the company is studying how to boost output while keeping operations lean, "which is a great problem to solve," he said.
It's the latest resurgence for a combat jet that took its first flight in 1995 and seemed headed for oblivion in 2001 when Lockheed's F-35 beat a Boeing proposal to build the Pentagon's Joint Strike Fighter. The Super Hornet found a lifeline as cost overruns and technical issues plagued early development of the F-35, the first jet designed to meet the different missions of the Marines, Air Force and Navy. The F-35 jet engine is made by East Hartford-based Pratt & Whitney.
The flurry of Super Hornet sales and a $21.1 billion order by Qatar for Boeing's F-15 fighter have helped revive the Chicago-based company's defense business as commercial-jet orders start to lag. The military business was Boeing's largest at the start of the decade. It accounted for only 31 percent of total revenue last year due to the Obama administration's spending constraints.
The Navy has relied heavily on the Super Hornet, whose combat credentials were burnished in missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, while awaiting a stealth-fighter version developed for aircraft-carrier decks: the F-35C. The final model of Lockheed's three-jet family isn't slated to be declared combat-ready before late 2018, and it could take more than a decade for the 260 jets ordered by the Navy and 80 by the Marines to be delivered.
"All of this is a recipe for survival into the mid-2020s," Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group, said of Boeing. "It wasn't expected a few years ago."
How swiftly Boeing moves to step up production — and hiring in St. Louis — could depend on a Pentagon study comparing the operational capabilities of the Super Hornet, which was designed in the 1990s, with the cutting-edge F-35.
Defense Secretary James Mattis commissioned the study during the new president's first week in office, after Trump had suggested on Twitter that an upgraded version of the F/A-18 could be an alternative to the Lockheed fighter. The president has repeatedly criticized the $379 billion F-35 program as "out of control."
Lockheed welcomes the "appropriate focus on affordability and capability," Marillyn Hewson, the defense company's chief executive officer, said in a statement. "We are confident such a thorough and objective analysis will show that only the F-35, with its advanced stealth and sensors, can meet the 21st century air superiority requirements of all of our military services."
Regardless of the outcome of the Mattis study, Boeing appears poised to reap as many as 140 Super Hornet orders between 2017 and 2022 as the Pentagon addresses its strike-fighter shortfall, said defense analyst Jim McAleese.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has made the Super Hornet a focus of discussions as he cultivates a relationship with Trump. Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, was spotted holding a brochure for the next version of the jet, the F/A-18 XT, while Trump toured a Boeing commercial jet factory last week. During an address to workers, the president hinted that a large order was ahead.
"We're excited to work with the new administration to bring the right capability to the warfighter, and it has certainly accelerated that discussion," Boeing's Gillian said.
Boeing has floated concepts for an enhanced Super Hornet for several years, though based on Navy feedback, the company has focused on relatively cheap upgrades. The latest version would extend the fighter's range, while upgrading cockpit displays with larger screens. Boeing and General Electric are also studying an engine redesign that could boost thrust from the Super Hornet turbines by about 20 percent.
The jet would be made "smarter" by borrowing both the bigger network switches and a distributed-network processor developed for the EA-18G Growler, a sibling designed to jam enemy radar. But it wouldn't necessarily be stealthier. Boeing has dropped plans to encase the Super Hornet's weapons systems in a pod aimed at reducing its radar footprint, Gillian said.
"There is no point in trying to compete with an F-35 on stealth," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with Lexington Institute, who's done consulting for contractors such as Lockheed. "But there are other things like networking where the Super Hornet can deliver capabilities earlier than the F-35."
The upgrades would cost "a couple of million dollars" above the "low-to-mid $70 million" price that the Navy currently pays for the Super Hornet, according to Gillian. They could also be retrofitted to older models. Boeing holds a separate contract worth about $2 billion aimed at extending the lives of the 568 Super Hornets already in the Navy fleet by one-third to 9,000 flight hours.
Even with the latest upgrades, a "fourth-generation" F/A-18 couldn't be transformed into a viable competitor to the "fifth generation" F-35, equipped with more advanced radar, sensors and communications systems. The fighters are vastly different, with distinctive roles in America's arsenal, said Rep. Kay Granger, the Republican lawmaker who would need to approve big changes in defense spending.
So, Boeing's fighter orders shouldn't come at Lockheed's expense if caps on defense spending are lifted, Thompson said.
"That's frankly what the Navy needs," he said. "It needs to get a fully stealthy aircraft on its carrier decks. But it needs to fill the gap in capability caused by the slow delivery of the F-35."