Just one day after the first F-35C Lightning IIs arrived at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, to begin populating the US Navy’s West Coast fifth-generation inventory, the future of the carrier variant (CV) Joint Strike Fighter has been thrown into doubt.
In a memorandum to his deputy, the Secretary for Defense James Mattis calls for a ‘detailed assessment’ of the F-35 program to reduce costs. The Deputy Secretary for Defense will head up a review to ‘determine opportunities to significantly reduce the cost of the F-35 program.’
Making good on a pre-inauguration promise from Donald Trump, the same document calls for a parallel effort to compare the operational capabilities of the F-35C variant with the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. This will involve a study into an F-35C alternative based on the so-called Advanced Super Hornet concept previously pitched by Boeing. The assessment will review the practicality of fielding a ‘competitive, cost effective fighter aircraft alternative.’
Change of fortunes?
The Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 and 2016 budgets contained no request for additional Super Hornets or EA-18G Growlers. Both came at a time when the Boeing company was facing the potential closure of its production line. Yet in each year, despite the initial budget submitted by the Department of Defense, the US Navy submitted an unfunded list of priorities requesting additional aircraft: 22 Growlers in FY 2015 and 12 Super Hornets in FY 2016.
Through diligent efforts by Boeing and a Congressional realization of naval aviation strike-fighter and electronic attack needs, at least a portion of these requests were ultimately funded by Congress and passed into law. Fifteen Growlers were funded in FY 2015, while 12 aircraft — seven Growlers and five Super Hornets — were funded in FY 2016.
The FY 2017 budget, released on February 9, 2016, formally requested two Super Hornets, using Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. The Navy also indicated in its budget that it would buy 14 Super Hornets in FY 2018. However, these 14 jets were turned down by Congress.
With aging Hornet and Super Hornet fleets to manage, and with delays and ongoing problems with the F-35C program, Chief of Naval Operations ADM Jonathan Greenert has pointed to an emerging shortfall of between 24 and 36 strike fighters.