For the purposes of full disclosure, I have a duty to inform you all that I am a U.S. Navy (Reserve) F/A-18 Hornet pilot. And while some may remark of a bias because of that, please follow along and draw your own conclusions.

When I read the remarks of the current Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, to Congress about the impending Navy strike fighter shortfall, I couldn’t help but feel that the answer is staring us right in the face: the Navy needs to buy more Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as a stop-gap measure until Lockheed-Martin can deliver the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter to the fleet.

Originally designed to serve for 6,000 flight hours, the Navy and Marine Corps’ Hornet fleet is well into its prime with over 62% of the fleet already beyond 7,000 flight hours. Instead of reconstituting the fleet with newer aircraft, the Navy has gone “all in” on the Joint Strike Fighter.

An F-35C test aircraft flies at dusk to prepare for a night refueling mission in September 2013. The flight originated from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
An F-35C test aircraft flies at dusk to prepare for a night refueling mission in September 2013. The flight originated from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. (Photograph courtesy of Lockheed-Martin)

Consequently, the Navy is also looking to extend the Hornet’s life to up to 10,000 hours through Service Life Extension Programs that are costly in terms of both time and money. I don’t think a single Hornet pilot disagrees the Navy should invest in a next generation fighter then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates described as being the “backbone of US air combat.” But, I worry about the cost, even as this argument is nothing new for an unproven platform.

On June 18, 1996, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report stating that the FA-18E/F would provide only marginal operational improvement at a high cost. In part, it was assessed that “the next-generation Joint Strike Fighter is projected to cost less per aircraft and be more capable than the FA-18E/F” and that the Navy would “save $17 billion in recurring flyaway costs if it procured FA-18C/D aircraft rather than the FA-18E/F.”

Of course, playing Monday morning quarterback is easy. We now know that the JSF is not a cheaper alternative to the FA-18E/F Super Hornet – in 2011, the Pentagon put a price of $207.6 million per JSF to be acquired in Fiscal Year 2012, compared to $60.9 million per Super Hornet. With the strike fighter shortfall estimated at three squadrons worth of assets – roughly 36 jets – it would make sense for the Navy to fill that gap with FA-18E/F Super Hornets, which it could do for the equivalent cost of 9 Joint Strike Fighters.

The question then becomes whether or not the Super Hornet can meet the operational needs of the Navy. With the Boeing Super Hornet production line scheduled to close in 2017, Dan Gillian, Boeing’s Super Hornet and Growler Program Manager, stated the company must begin procurement for long lead items by mid-2015 if the line is to remain open beyond the Navy’s current order. Now, I’m no genius, but Mickey’s big hand is already on the “We Need to Buy More Super Hornets Now!” mark.

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First flight of the F/A-18E/F Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks and Enclosed Weapons Pod. 8/7/2013
First flight of the F/A-18E/F Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks and Enclosed Weapons Pod. (Photo Courtesy of Boeing Defense)

It is a proven platform with operational skill sets to include air-to-air, air-to-ground, in-flight refueling, and electronic attack. The F/A-18 family of strike fighter aircraft have been in every major U.S. conflict for the past two decades, and if the Navy has its way, will continue to be a mainstay of the carrier fleet through the next two decades into the 2040s.

The Navy’s current plan to keep the Super Hornet a viable asset includes software upgrades, an Infrared Search and Track (IRST) pod, the Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM) Block 4 self-protection suite, and an enhanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. While funding is already in place to integrate the IRST into the current fleet in 2017 and the IDECM suite later this year, the current budget has NO answer for the shortfall. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

I know what you’re thinking, and I get it: “Farley, what about that pesky GAO report that addresses the Super Hornet’s weaknesses in metrics such as combat radius?”

Aha! I am ready for you, naysayers!

Boeing has already invested its own money on researching and developing conformal fuel tanks which will reduce drag and increase the combat radius of the Super Hornet. According to Dan Gillian, the tanks could be installed as early as 2020… if the Navy includes the program in its Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

What bothers me the most about this issue is we’ve known it was going to happen! In 2008, the Navy estimated a shortfall to take place between 2015 and 2025, with 2017 being the nadir of 69 aircraft. But, I fear that we have invested heavily in a program that is now “too big to fail” and are reluctant to consider alternate solutions to the very real and apparent problems our force now faces.

F-35C from VX-23, piloted by LCDR Ted Dyckman, just before trapping aboard the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). (Photo © Lockheed Martin)
F-35C from VX-23, piloted by LCDR Ted Dyckman, just before trapping aboard the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). (Photo © Lockheed Martin)

My Uncle John reminded me of President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961 in which he warns “in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” and we must “compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals.”

It has been 14 years since Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract for System Development and Demonstration of the Joint Strike Fighter and 9 years since it first took flight. We need the technology this platform brings in order to counter the modern threats our force faces, but especially given the austere fiscal environment our military is operating under, we cannot afford to ignore that the immediate solution is already within reach.

Order more Super Hornets now!