US Navy's Fighter Jet Shortage

Navy's fighter jet shortage may be worse than expected

The Navy has uncovered problems with plans to extend the life of its F/A-18 Hornets that could exacerbate efforts to mitigate a shortage of strike fighter aircraft that is expected to vex the service until 2025.

Preliminary results from a continuing Navy review have found that keeping the A- through D-model Hornets flying longer will "require additional inspections, modifications and a longer time out of service," a Navy spokesman said Thursday.

To minimize the size of the shortfall, the Navy has hoped to eke 10,000 flight hours out of each of its Hornets instead of the 8,000 hours under an earlier plan.

Senior Navy officials have said the strike fighter shortfall will peak in 2017 at 69 aircraft and continue, in smaller numbers, until the service completes procurement of Lockheed Martin's F-35C Joint Strike Fighters in 2025. But those figures were based on getting 10,000 flight hours out of the Hornets and also keeping the JSF program on schedule. "Our estimate of the strike fighter gap assumed we could proceed with the SLEP [service-life extension program on the Hornets] as planned," the spokesman said. "The scope and extent of the effect on the shortfall will take approximately four to six months to determine."

The Navy originally planned to fly the Hornets, which are produced by Boeing Co., for just 6,000 flight hours, before extending that to 8,000 hours in 2006. But the early results from the review also found "hot spots" in the current fleet that could force the Navy to conduct inspections and further modify the aircraft to keep them flying for just 8,000 hours. "Additional study is required to determine whether or not these fatigue hot spots are unique or systemic," the spokesman said. The Navy has 636 Hornets, half of which have flown more than 6,000 hours.

The looming fighter shortage, according to a May 27 Congressional Research Service report, "could lead to a reduction in the number of strike-fighter squadrons available for service, a reduction in the number of strike fighters in each squadron, or both." To address the shortfall, Boeing has pushed for a third multiyear contract for newer F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to begin in fiscal 2010 and last through fiscal 2013. A multiyearmultiyear contract expires. But Boeing has given the Navy an unsolicited offer for 170 aircraft at $49.9 million apiece, which the company estimates is a 7 percent to 10 percent discount per aircraft. Boeing has worked closely with the Navy during its assessment of the Hornet fleet, a company spokesman said. "At this point, there are significant issues discovered during the analysis that will need to be addressed," he added. "The exact path forward to address those issues is still being worked." agreement, Boeing officials have said, would allow the Navy to sign a long-term contract for a fixed price, providing stability for Boeing and reduced prices for the Navy. The Navy already plans to buy 89 Super Hornets through the traditional procurement process after the current

The House-passed fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill requires the Navy to study the possibility of a third multiyear contract for Super Hornets. It also allows the service to use $100 million in its Super Hornet budgets for "cost reduction initiatives" that would be critical to obtaining congressional authorization of a multiyear agreement next year. In its report on the authorization measure, the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed concerns about the fighter shortfall and said the Navy should explore all options to mitigate it, including another multiyear procurement for Super Hornets.

By Megan Scully

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