By W.J. Hennigan
Workers at Northrop Grumman Corp.’s 1-million-square-foot El Segundo facility on Aviation Boulevard have been cranking out fuselage sections for the Navy’s F/A-18 fighter jet for decades.
But now, the end may be near.
Since entering service in 1983, the lithe twin-engine fighter-bomber has been a symbol of U.S. military might, catapulting from aircraft carrier decks and obliterating targets in the sky and on the ground.
Today there are increasing fears that the F/A-18 Super Hornet assembly line may be shut down because of dwindling orders, as the Navy prepares for a new generation of warplane — the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The new radar-evading jet is scheduled to be the F/A-18’s eventual successor when it becomes operational in 2019. It’s only about halfway through its development plan and has been plagued by billions of dollars’ worth of cost overruns. There has also been a string of technical problems, including a redesign of its arresting hook, which is essential to landing on a carrier deck.
Now the Obama administration must decide by March 4 — when its fiscal 2015 budget request is sent to Congress — whether it wants any more F/A-18s. Then it will be up to Congress whether to go along.
With no new orders, the last F/A-18 fuselage is set to be hoisted onto an 18-wheeler for the 1,800-mile trek from El Segundo to prime contractor Boeing Co.’s final assembly plant in St. Louis by the end of 2016.
John Murnane, Northrop’s program manager, said there are nearly 100 fuselages left to deliver to Boeing, and contractors are hopeful for more.
“We continue to work with our industry partners to identify future opportunities,” he said. “The program has always received strong support from its customers.”
To give customers more time and to extend the line’s life several months, Boeing and Northrop have slowed production rates from four per month to three. The aerospace giants have also proposed a more fuel efficient, stealthy version of the plane as a potential alternative. To lower costs, Boeing negotiated a new tentative contract agreement with a St. Louis machinists union.
If political maneuvering and a fresh sales pitch don’t work, the El Segundo assembly line could join dozens of other airplane manufacturing plants that have had to close their doors. The latest is Boeing’s sprawling Long Beach plant, where the last hulking C-17 cargo plane is to be built next year.
The difference here is that the Navy wants to purchase more fighters no matter what, whereas the Air Force was not interested in more cargo jets, said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a zero sum game for the Navy,” he said. “It’s only a matter [of] if they’re going to buy F-35s or Super Hornets.”
Boeing and Northrop have had luck staving off the end before. By now, the military had hoped to start phasing out the F/A-18 and begin flying the F-35, but repeated problems have forced the Navy to buy more F/A-18s to hedge against the delays.
That’s been a boon for Northrop’s 900 F/A-18 workers in El Segundo. Aerospace workers have been assembling military aircraft at the redwood building on Aviation Boulevard, which is only about a mile south of Los Angeles International Airport, since World War II.
In the 1940s, Douglas Aircraft Co. made the SBD Dauntless, a Navy dive bomber, in the facility. Northrop moved into the facility in 1977 to build the F/A-18 and another supersonic fighter, the F-5.
It now produces about 3.5 of the F/A-18 fuselage sections per month.
Each section is about 28 feet long and 12 feet tall and consists of the center and rear of the fuselage. The jet’s twin vertical tails and the electronics and pump systems are also installed at the plant.
About 210 parts suppliers are spread throughout California on the program alone, and the plane has its friends on Capitol Hill. It supports about 90,000 supplier jobs in 44 states.
Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in December expressing concern that if the F/A-18 line begins to close down, there will be too great a reliance on the troubled F-35 program.
“Should the Navy choose to allow the F/A-18 production line to close, the U.S. will be left with only one manufacturing line capable of producing combat ready tactical aircraft until later this decade,” he said. “The risk to U.S. national security and the health of our aviation industrial base of relying on only one tactical aircraft supply line is simply too great to allow the line to close.”
Last month, Congress passed an omnibus federal spending bill that included $75 million for 22 planes that the Navy didn’t even request.
Winslow T. Wheeler, a military budget specialist and frequent Pentagon critic at the Project for Government Oversight, says the Navy is not speaking up about the concerns over the F-35.
“The Navy should show some real leadership on its own, rather than squirming over to Capitol Hill, to get some relief from the F-35 and its unaffordable costs and unacceptable performance,” he said.
Depending on the variation of F/A-18, costs can range from about $52 million to $61 million. So the planes are relatively cheap when compared with newer fighter jets such as the F-35, which costs about $130 million.
That’s not a revelation. As more planes are built on the assembly line, the cost per plane falls. Only about two dozen Navy versions of the F-35 have been built.
The F/A-18 first proved its worth in the 1990s in Operation Desert Storm when it shot down Iraqi air force fighters in dogfights and took out key enemy strongholds with laser-guided bombs — sometimes on the same mission.
Boeing and Northrop have delivered more than 2,100 of the F/A-18s — and all of its variations such as the Hornet, Super Hornet and Growler, the electronic warplane.
“This is the best product at the best price,” said Mike Gibbons, Boeing’s F/A-18 program manager. “The aircraft we deliver today has more capabilities than what we did years ago and it’s more affordable.”
Boeing is also holding out hope that it can sell more planes to foreign buyers. Countries such as Kuwait, Denmark and Malaysia are looking to buy fighter jets. When pitching the fighter overseas, it doesn’t hurt to mention that the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flying aerobatic team, fly F/A-18s.
But even if foreign countries choose to purchase the plane, they often buy fewer aircraft and cannot come close to replacing the gaping hole expected to be created by the lack of U.S. government funding.
Critics of the jet often say that it’s not stealthy enough. But Boeing has made several changes to the design on its newest proposed version, the Advanced Super Hornet. Boeing says it has reduced its radar visibility of the plane by 50%, so it doesn’t pop up as readily on enemy radar screens.
“This has been a model program in how it faced problems and overcame them,” Gibbons said. “We expect to build this aircraft into 2016 and beyond.”