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Northrop Grumman’s F/A-18 Super Hornet could face fate similar to Boeing’s C-17
Daily Breeze ^ | 12/23/13 | Muhammed El-Hasan

Posted on 12/24/2013 1:54:24 PM PST by sukhoi-30mki

Inside a cavernous assembly line in El Segundo, Northrop Grumman employees build the center aft fuselage and vertical tail — everything behind the pilot except the wings — for the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Roughly 900 local Northrop employees help build this plane, the Navy’s workhorse fighter jet that has seen action in such theaters as Iraq and Afghanistan.

To date, Northrop and prime contractor Boeing have delivered more than 2,100 planes, including earlier versions and an electronic warfare variant.

However, those Northrop employees and thousands more throughout California and nationwide face the prospect of an end to the Super Hornet line in coming years unless the Navy and other countries maintain a consistent stream of orders for more planes.

The Super Hornet’s situation resembles that of Boeing’s C-17 military cargo plane, whose Long Beach assembly line will close in 2015 after Boeing saw U.S. orders dry up and failed to secure enough foreign buys. That will leave about C-17 2,000 employees in and around Long Beach without work.

“Actually it’s very much where the C-17 was a few years ago. ... It’s exactly the same dynamic,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. “They haven’t made the final kill decision, but it’s hard to find more export customers. It’s increasingly dependent upon the prospects of a foreign customer coming to the rescue.”

Whereas Boeing used its own funds to keep the C-17 line open as it sought new orders, Boeing has until March to decide whether to invest tens of millions of dollars to maintain Super Hornet production. Without such self-funding and if no new orders come, the twin-engine fighter jet would end production in 2016.

In addition to Northrop’s local work on the plane, Raytheon designed the Super Hornet’s powerful radar in El Segundo and Boeing performs F/A-18 final assembly in St. Louis.

More than 100 other California companies provide parts and services for the plane.

However, Boeing and its partners hope to keep building the Super Hornet past 2020. To make this more likely, the companies have proposed enhancements for the plane to create what would be known as the Advanced Super Hornet.

“We’ve been working on an Advanced Super Hornet,” said John P. Murnane, Northrop’s F/A-18 program manager. “There’s a lot of things going on to keep this plane relevant.”

Proposed improvements include conformal fuel tanks that Northrop Grumman designed in El Segundo to increase the plane’s range by 130 miles. The light-weight composite fuel tanks would be on the top of the plane in an aerodynamic shape to avoid additional drag or increased detectability by enemy radar.

Raytheon in El Segundo developed a more capable radar system.

Smaller suppliers are also contributing to the effort. For example, Rubbercraft in Long Beach would provide the aerodynamic seals surrounding Northrop’s new fuel tanks.

Other improvements to the plane include an improved engine, enclosed weapons pod and even a more functional cockpit.

“What we have done is develop the prototype airplane to develop certain features,” said Paul Summers

Boeing’s F/A-18 innovation and capability growth director. “The core industry members are spending our own discretionary funds to develop this concept.”

Boeing, Northrop and their partners hope some or all of these upgrades would increase the chances of new orders, either from the Navy or other countries’ navies.

The Super Hornet’s supporters in Congress are pushing for more Navy buys, although how many orders they can secure is limited by severe federal budget constraints.

“There is a chance of getting another batch of Navy planes, maybe 36,” Aboulafia said. “The market for twin-engine heavy fighters is really small. It’s a very elite club. There have been hopes of recruiting other countries to that club, but it’s been very tough.” In addition to the U.S. government, Boeing has sold the Super Hornet to several other nations, most notably Australia. Now, Boeing is pursuing new orders from various nations including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Malaysia — a group that resembles Boeing’s wish list for the C-17 before announcing the end of that plane’s production in two years.

A big challenge facing new Super Hornet orders is Lockheed’s new F-35 fighter jet, which is more capable than the Super Hornet. The Navy version of the F-35 is expected to be ready for combat use by 2019.

“When you’re in the F/A-18 price class, more and more you’re going head to head against the F-35,” Aboulafia said. “The F/A-18 is cheaper but the F-35 price is coming down and it’s perceived as the technology of the future.”

Ordering more Super Hornets would cost the Navy more than $50 million apiece.

“The Super Hornet is going to be on a carrier deck probably beyond 2040. It has a lot of life in it,” Summers said. “The reason we’re doing all of these things to the airplane is so it can meet projected threats beyond 2040. And the F-35 will not be on the carrier deck in any significant numbers until the mid-2020s.”

Even if the Super Hornet enhancements do not lead to new orders, they could lead to profitable retrofits to existing F/A-18s, thereby helping to maintain jobs throughout the plane’s supply chain.

Another positive note, at least for Northrop, is its own work on the F-35. Northrop performs engineering work in El Segundo and builds the center fuselage in Palmdale.

F-35 work at those and other sites accounts for 1,950 Northrop jobs in California, including more than 1,500 in Los Angeles County.

However, Northrop is not giving up on the F/A-18. The company sees the Advanced Super Hornet as a way to meet the military needs and budgetary challenges of current and potential customers.

“It really continues the evolution of the product,” said Robert Walke, Northrop’s chief engineer for the F/A-18. “The purpose of the Advanced Super Hornet is to affordably outpace the threats that are expected to evolve in the next 10 to 15 years.”


TOPICS: Government; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: aerospace; boeing; c17; superhornet

Northrop hopes the F/A-18E/F Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks will keep the aircraft a Navy workforce. Courtesy of Boeing

1 posted on 12/24/2013 1:54:24 PM PST by sukhoi-30mki
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To: sukhoi-30mki

F-18 = the height of 1970s design.

Of course, the backbone of the cargo and bomber fleets are the height of 1950s design.


2 posted on 12/24/2013 2:07:19 PM PST by PAR35
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To: PAR35

If the USA was a new country and they built only F15, F16 and F18 combat jets, they would still be more advanced than any other combat aircraft on the planet.


3 posted on 12/24/2013 2:36:31 PM PST by EQAndyBuzz ("The GOP fights its own base with far more vigor than it employs in fighting the Dims.")
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To: EQAndyBuzz

There is no reason to keep building these airplanes if they have been superseded by better. But if these airplanes are cost effective and still relevant then we should continue to buy them. Not being an Air Force guy I can’t say that the replacements are better (a subjective term) or more cost effective. To build them so that these people can keep their jobs seems foolish


4 posted on 12/24/2013 3:06:29 PM PST by Ouderkirk (To the left, everything must evidence that this or that strand of leftist theory is true)
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To: EQAndyBuzz

Lot of that kind of attitude in the US about the Nips in 1941 - first half of 1942.


5 posted on 12/24/2013 3:32:38 PM PST by PAR35
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