The U.S. Navy Is Convinced It Can Fix Its Fighter Shortage — And Avoid Another
SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Navy has a carefully balanced plan to fill one fighter shortage and avoid another in the 2030s — but several pieces must come together exactly as planned.
The plan is to add an additional 4,000 flight hours of service life to existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, field the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, and develop the F/A-XX manned fighter from the Next Generation Air Dominance program – and to do it all on time.
Vice Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, Commander of the Naval Air Force, told Defense News in a February 15 interview that the Navy is making progress in adding new fighters to its inventory and will have completely closed the gap – which had grown to 49 aircraft – by 2025.
But by 2030 or 2035, the F/A-XX must be developed and in the process of entering service; otherwise, Whitesell said, the Navy will begin to lose jets from inventory without bringing in replacements, creating a new fighter deficit.
The first lever is the modification of the lifespan of the Super Hornet program. The SLM program will allow Block II aircraft to reach the end of their expected life of 6,000 hours and add an additional 4,000 flight hours, in addition to upgrading them to Block III capability through a variety of airframe repairs and the insertion of an advanced cockpit. .
Whitesell acknowledged some of the early challenges of the SLM, but said the Navy and Boeing were working together to ensure a smooth flow of planes in and out of the upgrade period.
When Boeing opened the first jets on the program, he said, “they found hot spots and a little more corrosion in the platform than we thought.”
This has created a backlog of jets in the program that are taking longer than expected due to corrosion issues, as well as a backlog of jets waiting to be inducted into SLM that instead have to wait until there is place at Boeing’s St. Louis, Missouri, and San Antonio, Texas, facilities.
“Boston Consulting Group approached Boeing and advised them on how to improve the production efficiency of their SLM line,” Whitesell said. But “we realized that this cannot be done by industry alone. So we went in and started two initiatives, we did some pre-SLM work based on what Boeing saw.
As part of a program, Navy personnel at service facilities perform corrosion remediation work on the jets at the 6,000 hour mark, then send the aircraft to Boeing for SLM – removing the boeing plate corrosion work and allowing the contractor to stick to the original work. plan. Whitesell said the Navy has completed this work on 19 jets so far.
Under the second program, the Navy performed a “maintenance reset” on about 40 jets based on Boeing data, then returned the plane to the fleet to continue flying. These jets are expected to complete their SLM periods at Boeing facilities in better shape, again allowing the company to meet the original scope of work and release the jets on schedule. Boeing said its first jets took about 18 months, which the company plans to reduce to 12 months.
If all goes well, by 2025 “we won’t have a shortage of strike fighter inventory,” Whitesell said. “It is these levers that are activated: SLM by Boeing, delivery of SLM. Pre-SLM work to give Boeing better planes. Maintenance reset for us to prepare the birds. And [Boston Consulting Group] sort of telling a new production company how to perform maintenance work.
Whitesell said 15 aircraft were delivered by SLM. These planes will have an additional 4,000 flight hours available to the Navy, but it has been questioned how many years that might be.
Whitesell said Navy models previously assumed each airframe flew between 210 and 230 hours per year. Because Super Hornets have been the workhorse of the fleet, the Navy has now increased that figure to 300 hours per year. Assuming this new metric is true, each cell has about 13 years left before retirement.
This means that by 2031-2032 the Super Hornets will start to leave inventory and then the F/A-XX should be ready to enter the fleet.
SLM is “building space” for the Next Generation Air Dominance program and the development of the F/A-XX, but “no one is doping football”. If the next-generation aircraft isn’t ready for prime time in the early 2030s, the Navy will find itself in trouble.
Less likely to affect inventory in the 2030-2035 timeframe, but still a long-term consideration for fighter inventory, is how quickly F-35C flight hours are depleted now. The Navy previously reduced the number of F-35Cs that would deploy in an air wing from two 10-plane squadrons to one, to a single 14-plane squadron.
Now, given that the United States perceives China as a major threat and aims to put its best equipment in the Asia-Pacific region, the Navy is considering the decision to return to 20 aircraft in the air wing – either in a large squadron, or in the original two squadrons of 10 planes.
Whitesell was careful to note that the plan is still 14 jets in a single squadron. The Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group recently returned from deployment with 10-jet Strike Fighter Squadron 147, and the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group is currently deployed with 10 Marine Corps F-35Cs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314. But all next squadrons that transition to the F-35C will have 14 jets, with Strike Fighter Squadron 97 being the next in line to transition and then deploy.
“The main driver right now is to advance maximum capability and fifth generation platforms in the Western Pacific. So because of that, VFA-97 – the next Navy squadron to transition – is a 14-plane JSF [Joint Strike Fighter] squadron. We’ve had talks with our Master Aviation Plan… by the way, as Lockheed Martin continues to build, it’s possible to go up to 20 JSFs in total. And now we have to decide if it will be one squadron or if it will be two squadrons. Or if [the Next Generation Air Dominance program] happens faster, exactly how we’re going to build JSF,” Whitesell said.
But we will decide [based on] repair capabilities, toolboxes, human beings – is it more efficient to have a squadron of 14 planes? A squadron of 20 planes? Or can we potentially go in two squadrons of 10 planes? »
Whitesell must consider several factors in any move to 20 F-35Cs in the carrier’s air wing. The obvious benefit is to put more advanced detection and combat capabilities into the toughest theater. But that would mean consuming more flight hours than expected at the start of the F-35 program, which could cause problems later.
Whitesell said F-35 maker Lockheed Martin has slowed deliveries of the ‘C’ variant to the Navy due to coronavirus concerns, but added the company has a plan to get back on track. . Speeding up deliveries would make it easier to decide to use more jets now – and positive news about the development of the F/A-XX would create less concern about the background of the F-35C program, while the effects of ‘increased use now would felt.
Additionally, Whitesell should find the cash for drivers, maintenance, spares and more now, despite recently tight budgets. He noted that Navy leadership has supported the naval aviation budget, but it’s unclear whether the service could afford to double its spending on F-35C contributions to the air wing compared to to the first two deployments of the JSF.
And, Whitesell said, there’s the question of whether there’s physical space on the carrier to have 20 JSFs.
Defense News visited the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier as it returned to San Diego, Calif., from its deployment to the Indo-Pacific region in February, and several crew members discussed ‘deck density’ high – or the unusually high number of aircraft and support equipment squeezed into the ship’s flight deck and hangar bay space.
Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group Commander Rear Admiral Dan Martin acknowledged the challenges that would come with adding more aircraft to future air wings, but he told Defense News that the Navy should “shape the ‘air wing that is relevant to the threat’. .”
Whitesell said he was considering Martin’s request to add two more Growlers, for a total of nine, as well as adding additional Joint Strike Fighters – as well as adding five MQ-25A unmanned tankers to the air wing for first deployment in 2026.
While that’s a lot to ask of the Nimitz-class carriers, Whitesell suggested that first-of-its-class Gerald R. Ford and its follow-on ships might be better equipped for this larger air wing.
“We have to wait to move to the Ford class. The difference in loading from a Nimitz class to a Ford class – we just did the experiments at Lakehurst, [New Jersey], about three or four weeks ago, and the loadout on the Ford-Class gives us a ton of different options on what future Air Wings are going to look like. By moving the island aft, having more storage capacity, Gerald R. Ford is going to be a game changer for us in terms of cockpit capacity and number,” Whitesell said.
Although Vinson performed the first deployment of the “air wing of the future”, this air wing has several improvements to come, Whitesell explained:
- Super Hornets will be upgraded to Block III capability.
- The number of F-35Cs will increase and the jets will have the improved Block IV capability.
- The MQ-25 will make its debut in 2026.
- The EA-18G Growler will go through a Growler capability modification program specifically focused on improving its airborne electronic attack capabilities.
- The E-2D will be upgraded with the Delta system software configuration.
- The Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems will provide crewed and unmanned pairing options between the F/A-XX and any unmanned aircraft that exit the program.
- The MH-60R and MH-60S helicopters will be replaced by whatever comes out of the Future Vertical Lift program.
Megan Eckstein is a naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported on four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.