The F-18 fighter jet looks nearly invincible with Tom Cruise’s ace pilot character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, at the helm.
The recent blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick” showcases Missouri-made warplanes in daring dogfight sequences. But Hollywood can be misleading: Cruise’s anti-aging desirability doesn’t exactly extend to the F-18 Super Hornet he claims to fly.
Boeing manufactures the fighter jets featured in “Top Gun” in St. Louis County, and the US Navy uses more than 500 of the planes on its aircraft carriers.
But that doesn’t mean he wants more.
For much of the past decade – with the exception of former President Donald Trump’s tenure – the Navy said it had enough F-18s, only for Congress to buy a handful of them anyway. more.
Those congressional decisions extended the life of Boeing’s Super Hornet manufacturing in St. Louis, which the company says employs about 15,000 people and is expected to remain in business for a few more years. It’s not the only military aircraft built there, but it’s a constant presence on the assembly line.
Foreign countries are increasingly awarding contracts to Boeing rival Lockheed Martin and its F-35 fighter jet, which is also used by the US military. The Navy once again told Congress this year that it doesn’t need more F-18s.
Lawmakers can continue to override the military. U.S. Representative for Missouri’s 4th District, Vicky Hartzler, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee’s Air and Ground Tactical Subgroup, is pushing to build more Super Hornets.
“The F-18 is a proven aircraft that offers an enormous amount of capability,” Hartzler said. “There are plenty of reasons to continue.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri who serves on the Sea Power Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “continues to support increased funding for the Super Hornet program,” a spokesperson said.
But Richard Aboulafia, an air defense industry expert and independent adviser to major military contractors, sees less potential for the Super Hornet.
“As a new build plan, its days are numbered,” he said.
A Boeing spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the company’s plans for the Super Hornet.
The tension around the F-18 has reached a tipping point. Plummeting Navy demand for new Super Hornets doesn’t bode well for continued manufacturing in Missouri — and lawmakers are caught between dueling priorities of Pentagon budget demands and jobs in their districts .
“The F-18 line seems to be coming to an end,” said JJ Gertler, who worked for the House Armed Services Committee in the early 2000s and runs a defense policy consulting firm. “So what’s the next step?” There is no public response to this yet.
‘Need’ or ‘excess need?’
The Super Hornet was not originally Boeing’s jet to be built. It debuted in 1995 after being designed by McDonnell Douglas, just a few years before the St. Louis-based company merged with Boeing. The Super Hornet, at the time, was an update of an older aircraft known simply as the Hornet.
The United States Navy first deployed Super Hornets in 1999. Since then, it has undergone a number of upgrades to remain technologically relevant.
Those adjustments have been “mostly internal,” with a focus on sensors, computers and electronics, said Mike Hankins, curator of US Air Force history at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Boeing is currently producing the third generation of the jet, known as the F/A-18E/F.
Australia and Kuwait also use St. Louis-made Super Hornets, while India is reportedly considering buying the fighters.
The US Navy, however, has sought to wean itself off the F-18s. Lockheed’s F-35 was the main alternative, although the development of this aircraft suffered setbacks and problems over the course of two decades.
While the F-35 was previously more expensive, this fighter and the Super Hornet cost around $80 million each.
The F-35 brings two key features to the carrier’s deck: stealth and communication.
“Stealth is a big deal,” Hankins said, referring to aircraft’s ability to evade or limit detection in flight.
And communication – whether between pilots, a pilot and a ship or a pilot and drones – has an advantage. Gertler likened the advantage of the F-35’s communication features to the improved text messages that can be sent between iPhones.
The F-35 is part of a “new generation of stealthier aircraft that are harder for enemies to detect,” Gertler said. “And while they don’t do as many different things as the Super Hornet, (they) should be able to survive better in future air defense environments.”
While stealth is not a selling point of the F-18, it has seen some stealth-focused upgrades. Still, experts doubt it will help the fighter much.
“Really, I don’t know how you (add stealth) in a meaningful way,” Hankins said. “To really have an effective stealth aircraft, you have to do it right from the design phase.”
Lawmakers spending hundreds of millions of dollars building more F-18s will have to determine how long they will remain a valuable military asset.
“For people wondering ‘should we buy more now?’ what they think is that “everything we buy right now will need to be operational at least into the 2050s, if not longer,” Hankins said.
This concern has prompted some foreign governments to look beyond the Super Hornet for alternatives.
The F-18 was not among the first two options in Canada, where the F-35 prevailed in March. Germany also chose the F-35 to replace older fighter jets in March.
The US Navy’s apathy toward the Super Hornet grows.
“What’s different this time is that the Navy has been very adamant,” Aboulafia said. “It’s not about saying, ‘Oh, you know, we’d like them, but we can’t afford them.’ They just say, ‘No, we don’t want it.’ »
Enter the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. Both are developing their own versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, the only piece of legislation that has been withdrawn from Congress for 61 consecutive years. It funds the US military.
These committees will eventually negotiate a final version of the authorization law, but they will first hold internal discussions with lawmakers called markups, when amendments can begin to overrule Defense Department requests.
On Wednesday, the House committee approved an amendment to its version of the law that would spend an additional $660 million on eight new Super Hornets. The Senate, so far, has not added any F-18s, but has added seven more F-35s than the Navy was seeking.
These changes to Department of Defense requests — such as the Navy’s request not to come up with new Super Hornets — show how members of Congress don’t always expect the military to accurately represent its needs. .
“We don’t think that’s the case,” Hartzler said of the Navy’s request, arguing that the branch was short on fighter jets. “We’re trying to bridge that gap and get to the point where the next plane is available or the F-35s are good enough.”
Hartzler thinks it could be a few years before the F-35 reaches that level, citing delays in its development, which means there could be more F-18 orders from Congress to come. come.
Because Congress has the constitutional power to equip the military, it can continue to cancel the Pentagon, although Gertler said purchases of additional equipment often come with the additional amount of money needed, which is the case with this year’s House amendment.
“The services — they have no choice but to follow what Congress is doing,” he said.
Being overruled by Congress doesn’t always sit well with military officials, including those in the Navy.
When speaking with defense industry leaders at a summit in August 2021, the branch’s chief of naval operations opposed future Congressional purchases of Super Hornets.
“While it’s in the best interest of the industry…pressing Congress to buy planes that we don’t need, that are in excess of what’s needed, is not helpful,” he said. Admiral Mike Gilday, according to a Defense Daily report.
Boeing spent about $2.7 million on lobbying in the first three months of 2022. That’s about in pace with its normal lobbying budget.
In 2021, Boeing ranked 16th in corporate spending on lobbying, according to tracking by the Center for Responsive Politics. Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35, finished 13th.
There will still be plenty of opportunities for corporate lobbyists to make their case on Capitol Hill; the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will also have a say in defense spending.
Gertler described authorization committees as those who write the checks, while appropriations committees move the money around to cover those costs.
Although eight Navy fighter jets represent a relatively small share of US military spending, they would be vital to Boeing’s manufacturing operations in St. Louis. Still, the F-18 isn’t the only Boeing project going there. The St. Louis plant recently began manufacturing the T-7A Red Hawk, an Air Force trainer.
Aboulafia, the air defense industry adviser, noted that manufacturing isn’t the only type of job at Boeing related to the Super Hornet.
“On the plus side, they can actively rebuild and modernize the existing fleet for many years to come, so there is work there,” Aboulafia said.
As lawmakers struggle to balance the needs of the military with the interests of their constituents, it looks like the Super Hornets will continue to roll off the assembly line.
Hartzler said the potential addition of F-18s this year would be good for the Navy and good for the state.
“It certainly interests me because it is necessary, above all, for our fighters,” she said. “But second, it provides thousands of jobs in Missouri, so it’s a win-win to make sure we maintain that line.”