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Boeing looks abroad to bridge new fighter development while keeping Super Hornet assembly lines rolling

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Austin Huguelet

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS COUNTY — The future of one of the region’s most important assembly lines could depend on the next 60 days.

Boeing’s Super Hornets are in the final months of an international jet fighter sweepstakes, on the cusp of wooing Canada and Finland into multibillion-dollar deals. The orders could keep thousands of workers busy through the end of the decade.

The new work can’t come fast enough. The U.S. Navy is looking to curtail Super Hornet orders after more than two decades of support, leaving Boeing with a gap between current orders and those to come. At the same time, the company needs the Super Hornet to drive development of new fighters, a competition pitting the nation’s aerospace giants in a race to the next generation of aerial warfare — contracts that could keep assembly lines like those here in St. Louis humming for decades.

“If there’s going to be a sixth-generation fighter, Boeing needs a bridge,” said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and executive with the Lexington Institute.

The Super Hornet is Boeing’s all-purpose naval workhorse, built to live on a carrier deck and handle any mission thrown at it, from dogfights and airstrikes to acting as a fuel tanker. It’s also been a big winner in Washington: Since it entered production more than two decades ago, Congress has allocated roughly $50 billion for nearly 700 planes.

But they’ve been a harder sell abroad. The past quarter century has garnered just two foreign customers: Australia and Kuwait. Germany has announced its intent to follow, but, even if the deal is finalized, production on that program won’t start until 2026, Boeing said — two years after the last American order is scheduled to roll off the line.

Impending decisions from Canada and Finland could fill that gap. Both countries are looking to replace McDonnell Douglas Hornets procured decades ago, and they have the evolved Hornet on their shortlists.

For the Canadian order, Boeing is promising to partner with five Canadian companies to build, maintain, support and train pilots on 88 new planes, a buy it says will deliver 61 billion Canadian dollars in economic impact and 250,000 jobs. In Finland, where Boeing is offering 64 planes, the company has also touted opportunities for local industry and emphasized that the Super Hornet could reuse much of the infrastructure built for the old Hornet.

Thompson, the Lexington Institute executive, isn’t buying it. He expects both countries to go with the Hornet’s main competitor, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin’s newer, more advanced — and stealthier — F-35, built in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s become the global standard for tactical aircraft,” he said. “And with the exception of Germany, all their allies will be flying F-35s.”

Boeing hasn’t been on the best terms with the Canadian government of late. The company lost an opportunity to sell Canada some Super Hornets a few years back when it accused Ottawa of illegally subsidizing one of its competitors in the commercial airliner business.

But some analysts said not every country needs the high-end stealth of the F-35, an argument Boeing itself makes.

“F-35 is the car you drive on Sunday, and the Super Hornet is the car you drive every other day, to work and school,” said Boeing F/A-18 program manager Jen Splaingard.

The Super Hornet is also cheaper, part of its appeal to the U.S. Navy in recent years. “We have seen orders for Super Hornets just based on price tag,” said Jeff Windau, who covers Boeing at local brokerage Edward Jones. “The F-35 is very expensive and is not necessarily what is needed in all applications.”

If neither Canada nor Finland buys the pitch, Boeing could face a “business decision” on whether to subsidize the line until a new order comes in, Splaingard said. That could mean stretching out current orders or diverting workers to other lines.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Jan. 21, 2020) Sailors assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) air department, prepare to lift an F/A-18F Super Hornet, assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, from the hangar bay to the flight deck. Ford is currently conducting Aircraft Compatibility Testing to further test its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS) and Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jesus O. Aguiar)

But if the pitches sell, Boeing would get money to keep people in place for the real prize: next-generation aircraft.

St. Louis hasn’t won one of those in decades: McDonnell Douglas lost the F-22 fighter competition to Lockheed Martin in the 1990s. Boeing, which bought McDonnell in 1997, fared the same against the F-35 in 2001. And six years ago, Washington chose Northrop Grumman to build the new stealth bomber.

The search for sixth-generation fighters could be Boeing’s last chance to get back in the game before the Super Hornet and F-15, which Boeing builds for the Air Force, finally die out.

Most of Boeing’s work on that is classified, locked away in Phantom Works, the secretive research division named for McDonnell’s iconic Cold War fighter. But Boeing told the Post-Dispatch some of its progress is visible in the newly upgraded Super Hornets coming off the line now: revamped communications hardware to take in and share battlefield data, powerful new mission computers to crunch it, and a new tracking system that detects enemies via heat signature — a valuable tool for detecting radar-dodging planes like the F-35.

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said it’s a good start. ” Boeing’s definitely pursuing the right technologies,” he said.

But other analysts pointed out that competitors are doing the same thing, and that much of the new technology isn’t Boeing’s. The new mission computer, for instance, was built with Florida-based tech firm and defense contractor L3Harris Technologies; the new detection system is mostly a Lockheed product. “These are things you could apply to any jet,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group.

Clark and Aboulafia said that Boeing will also need to prove it can build a modern stealth fighter better than its competitors, who have won the past two dogfights.

It’s not clear how long it will be before that plane is unveiled, and analysts said some things could in the meantime break the Super Hornet’s way.

Flat defense budgets could persuade a Navy trying to build new destroyers, submarines and planes, all at the same time, to back off a new fighter and consider a souped-up Super Hornet as a lower-cost alternative, Clark said.

Lockheed’s struggles with F-35 production and cost could ultimately outweigh its incumbent advantage. “There’s a lot of baggage that comes with the F-35,” said Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s definitely a lot of animosity in Congress and somewhat in the service itself.”

One thing is certain, though: Boeing could use the win. The Super Hornet and the F-15, both legacies of the old McDonnell Douglas, won’t last forever.

“We could be looking at the final chapter of the McDonnell Douglas story,” said Thompson. “The question is whether there will be another chapter of tactical aircraft in St. Louis.”

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