By Tony Capaccio / Bloomberg
President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget will request 24 Super Hornet jets built by Boeing, reversing an Obama administration decision to stop buying the fighter after this year, according to two people familiar with the decision.
The Navy has argued that it needs more of the planes designated F/A-18E/F to fill a shortage in its inventory until more of Lockheed Martin’s newer F-35s are deployed. Before Trump even took office, he’d promoted the Super Hornet as a less costly alternative to the F-35, though the two planes have different capabilities.
The proposal in the budget due to be presented Feb. 12 is likely to be welcomed in Congress, which has consistently added more Super Hornets than requested and resisted Pentagon plans under former President Barack Obama to phase it out. Lawmakers approved 12 of the aircraft in fiscal 2016 when none were requested and 12 more in fiscal 2017 when two were requested. This fiscal year, House and Senate appropriators have proposed adding 10 aircraft to the 14 requested.
If Boeing “can get the cash for this, it’s very good news” because 24 aircraft per year is the minimum economic production rate to keep Boeing’s plant in St. Louis operating, Richard Aboulafia, military aircraft analyst for the Teal Group, said in an email. Boeing also is working with the Kuwaiti government to build as many as 32 F/A-18s for Kuwait over the next few years.
“The big question is: How long will the Navy sustain the line?” Aboulafia said. “But in the ‘here and now,’ this is very good news for one of Boeing’s most profitable programs.”
The people familiar with the budget request asked not to be identified in advance of its release. Lt. Seth Clarke, a Navy spokesman, said in an email, “I can’t confirm a specific number” for any aircraft procurement in the coming budget.
The fiscal 2019 request for the Super Hornets will be the largest since fiscal 2012, when the Navy asked for funds to buy 28 of the fighters.
As president-elect in 2016, Trump upended years of Pentagon procurement practices with a tweet announcing he’d asked Boeing to price an upgraded Super Hornet as a potential replacement for what he called “the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35.”
While Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered a review the next month pitting the F-35C against “an advanced Super Hornet,” no results were ever announced. Trump later switched to praise of the F-35, taking credit for cost reductions in a contract that was already under negotiation when he took office.