On a Thursday morning this month, one of the Navy’s well-used F/A-18 Super Hornets was taxied onto Boeing’s north St. Louis County campus.
It was the first of potentially hundreds of Super Hornets built there over the last 20 years that will return for upgrades designed to extend the life of the Navy’s workhorse fighter.
Boeing won its first contract from the Navy at the end of February for a program meant to extend the flight hours of the aircraft carrier-based fighters from 6,000 to 9,000 hours.
“You’ve got the whole population of Super Hornets that are out there that need to be extended from 6,000 to 9,000 hours,” Dan Gillian, Boeing’s vice president in charge of the F/A-18 and EA-18 Growler programs, said during a plant tour this month. “That’s a huge undertaking… That’s 40 or 50 airplanes a year that will need to come in and go out of the Service Life Modification program.”
The program means more work at Boeing’s massive production facility next to St. Louis Lambert International Airport, where the company employs the bulk of its 14,000 regional workers.
It’s not likely to mean a large boost in new jobs here. But it does mean the Super Hornet fighter assembly line, which only a few years ago many had expected to be winding down by now, has work to keep it busy well into the next decade.
Boeing has already built a prototype of the drone designed for aircraft carriers and it expects to hear whether it wins the contract by this summer.
The first contract awarded by the Navy is worth $73 million, but Boeing says “additional follow-on contracts could be awarded over the next 10 years.” And the company is ramping up the retooling line like it expects the work to keep coming as the Navy refreshes its fleet of more than 560 Super Hornets to keep them flying as its front-line fighter into the 2040s.
The first Super Hornets will take about 18 months to undergo the necessary upgrades, but Gillian said the company will refine the process and get the time it takes to upgrade them down to a year.
The Service Life Program comes on top of a fresh round of Super Hornet orders from the Navy as well as international orders from countries such as Kuwait that Gillian expects to keep the plant busy building new planes into 2025.
And by the next fiscal year, the company said the new Super Hornets it makes will be capable of 9,000 flight hours.
The initial work on the Service Life Modification program will mostly be in St. Louis, with about a quarter of it performed in El Segundo, Calif., where Boeing subcontracts with Northrop Grumman for pieces of the Super Hornet before its final assembly in St. Louis, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Gillian said that as the program ramps up, over time it could result in an increase of “several hundred jobs” across the Super Hornet production line. That production infrastructure will include a line in San Antonio to help handle the expected influx of aging Super Hornets needing upgrades.
But first, the work to fine-tune exactly what needs to be done on the jets will happen here.
“St. Louis, we want to bring the hardest jets here,” Gillian said. “We have the engineering expertise having built the airplanes. We’ll bring them here, we’ll figure out the hard stuff, and then we’ll replicate at scale down in San Antonio.”
The Navy’s push to extend the life of its Super Hornets comes after years of delays with the new stealthy F-35 joint strike fighter, which was meant to be used across military branches and is assembled by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Navy has bought more Super Hornets to hedge against delays in the newer fighter program, meanwhile racking up more hours on the older jets. In addition, it’s been forced to use Super Hornets as refueling craft for other Super Hornets, part of the reason it’s now pushing for a new unmanned refueling drone as fast as possible. Boeing is in the running for that contract.
With the Navy doubling down on the Super Hornet, the plane’s upgrades don’t stop at flight hours. By 2020, new Super Hornets will have new touch-screen cockpit computers for pilots, more advanced targeting and data systems and new fuel tanks to increase range.
A few years ago, many feared the Super Hornet assembly line here would already be gone.
And by 2022, Boeing expects to begin upgrading older Super Hornets with the newer systems in addition to re-engineering the airframes to give them more flight hours.
The planned upgrades and new U.S. orders of Super Hornets could help Boeing market the fighters to more international customers, some of whom had been asking whether the production line would be around for much longer.
“The Navy’s commitment gave us a pretty easy answer, a strong answer,” Gillian said.