Dan Gillian was upbeat during a tour of Boeing’s north St. Louis County factory this month.
Maybe it was good news in the budget deal hammered out by Congress that cheered the vice president of Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet attack fighter and electronic warfare Growler. Signed by President Donald Trump that morning, it removed caps on military spending put in place earlier this decade by Congress under the Obama administration.
And word on the street was that Trump would request another 24 Super Hornets in his fiscal 2019 budget request, an ask made far likelier to get funded given the higher military spending authorized both this fiscal year and the next in the budget deal.
Last week, the president did indeed request another two dozen fighters for next year, on top of the 24 congressional budget writers have already included in this year’s budget. Beyond 2019, the U.S. Navy says it wants to buy 86 into 2023.
The continued interest from the Navy for the Super Hornet — the workhorse of the Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet — could mean many more years of life for a production line some thought would have already wound down by now. And that means direct jobs for about 2,000 Boeing workers here and thousands more at hundreds of suppliers around the country.
“The future for Super Hornet wasn’t always that bright,” said Gillian, 39. “Now we feel very good, very confident. We are building more airplanes, bringing on more capabilities. It’s a growing program. We are excited about where we are going with Super Hornet.”
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Not only lethal, the planes have a tremendous economic impact. One Super Hornet costs roughly $75 million and takes three years to build, the last seven months of which happens inside enormous hangars across from the airport in north St. Louis County, where the majority of the 14,000 people Boeing employs in the region work.
Gillian said he expected production of the Super Hornet to remain steady at two per month, the plant’s sustainable capacity, and possibly increase to three per month in the early 2020s.
Only a few years ago, the Obama administration was proposing phasing out the Super Hornet in favor of the next generation, stealth-capable F-35 fighter made by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas. Congress, though, kept the fighter alive by approving more orders than requested. In fiscal 2016, Congress approved 12 when none were requested and another dozen when the administration only asked for two the following year. Even this year, Congress tacked 10 more on to the original 14 Super Hornets requested.
“The last 20 years have been a bit of a roller coaster ride for Boeing in St. Louis,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank on security issues. “But at the moment, the coaster seems to be going up with a fair bit of momentum.”
The company is working with Kuwait to build as many as 32 Super Hornets on top of the domestic orders. At the end of 2017, prior to any new orders being approved by Congress or requested by the military, Boeing said it had a backlog of 26 Super Hornets under contract with the Navy, according to a securities filing. It had already started or told suppliers to start on work beyond those, anticipating more orders.
“We think we are going to be building Super Hornets and Growlers here well into the next decade because Super Hornet and Growler are front-line fighters for the Navy, and the Navy is going to continue buying them to support their force structure,” said Gillian.
He added that there continues to be interest from abroad.
“We have good, strong international demand,” he said.
There are headwinds, though. A deal to sell around 18 of the Super Hornets to Canada is dead, a casualty of a trade dispute between Boeing and Bombardier Inc. over commercial aircraft. And the budget deal approved this month didn’t do anything about the military spending caps beyond fiscal 2019, said Richard Aboulafia, a military aircraft analyst for the Teal Group. So the big Hornet orders may be short-lived.
“Numbers like these just might not survive,” he said.
The Navy, Thompson, said, “loves” the Super Hornet and has been slow to transition to the F-35. He suspects they’ll get close to the 24 they want in fiscal 2019. As budgets get tighter, though, there will be more pressure to move toward the F-35.
“I think Super Hornet is in good shape for the rest of the decade, but once we get past 2019, it’s just going to be tough to keep military spending at the levels the administration wants because of the huge deficits,” he said.
St. Louis assembly site was mostly expected for $16 billion trainer contract, which the Pentagon is expected to award by the end of the year.
Existing orders should keep the Super Hornet line running until mid-2025, Aboulafia said. A foreign order of 36 F-15 fighters, also made at Boeing’s plant just north of St. Louis Lambert International Airport, means that line should keep running into 2022, he said. But if the two lines run out of orders, the Defense Department could face a situation where there’s only one place in the country that actually makes fighter planes. The Navy, at least, appears to want to have a more diverse industrial base.
“I think there’s a desire (to have more than one fighter assembly point), I just don’t know where the funding’s going to come from,” Aboulafia said.
In the meantime, Super Hornet production is humming. Gillian said Boeing is working with the Navy to expand the life of the Super Hornet from 6,000 flight hours, about 20 years, to 9,000 hours, and boost capabilities. The “service-life modification program” will also be done in St. Louis, starting this spring with the first airplane, but isn’t expected to have a large impact on jobs.
The newest version of the Super Hornet, which includes touchscreen technology, is supposed to come off the assembly line in late 2020.
“There is continuous investment in the factory because we have a long, long production run in front of us,” Gillian said.