Super Hornet zooms ahead Initial purchase of jet OK'd for Navy, leaving the F-22 in some peril

March 28, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The Pentagon has approved initial production of the Navy Super Hornet fighter plane, giving the McDonnell Douglas craft the edge over Lockheed Martin's F-22 in a contest for budgetary survival.

Undersecretary of Defense Paul G. Kaminski released a memorandum yesterday that authorizes the purchase of 62 of the F/A-18 E/F, the official name of the Super Hornet.

The Navy says it wants to buy as many as 1,000 of the controversial planes, which are modifications of the current Hornet fighter craft.

The Super Hornet, the Air Force F-22 and the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter are all under a threat of cutback or even cancellation as the Pentagon and Congress struggle over sustaining the programs. They have a combined cost of roughly $350 billion.

The Super Hornet is the most mature program, and had reached a point where Kaminski -- who oversees acquisitions for the Pentagon -- had to make a decision on whether to move ahead. Pulling out would have surprised more observers than moving ahead, but the decision still raised eyebrows.

"It's very difficult to kill a program once it has received production funding. That's the big advantage the F-18 has over its arch-rival, the F-22. It would be relatively easy to kill the F-22 at this stage of the game," said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with the Teal Group.

Aboulafia said he sees a 15 percent to 20 percent chance that the F-22 could wind up canceled. "It would be foolish, and it might be rescinded, but there is a chance," he said.

A large part of the F-22's problem is timing. The program is at a delicate point -- about halfway through development, with the first production craft set for unveiling April 9.

The Pentagon disclosed concerns about cost growth in the last few months, and the program has been restructured to avoid overruns. The Air Force will buy fewer planes up front, and Lockheed Martin has pledged to absorb any excess cost.

But the Pentagon is completing a Quadrennial Force Review in May that officials say could result in a recommendation to cut major programs. Congress has been particularly concerned about the three tactical aircraft programs, and Pentagon officials are considering the elimination of any one of them.

"Neither the QFR nor Congress are in and of themselves a huge threat to the F-22, but the combination of the two makes it possible that something could stop it," Aboulafia said.

The Joint Strike Fighter is seen as less vulnerable because it is still in a relatively low-cost prototype phase.

The F-22 is a super-advanced successor to the F-15 air superiority fighter. The new plane is said to have a revolutionary design that combines stealth, speed and futuristic electronics in the most lethal configuration ever to fly.

The plane is not cheap -- cost estimates range from $71 million to $100 million apiece -- and the Air Force wants to buy 438 of them.

The F/A-18 E/F, by contrast, has been criticized as a lackluster follow-on to the F-18 C/D that the Navy currently uses. Its performance and range are slightly better than the current plane's, but its weapons are virtually identical and its avionics -- or electronics gear -- are 90 percent the same.

"Admittedly, it's not the high end -- we did not opt for the most expensive, gold-plated option," Navy Capt. Mike John told the Associated Press yesterday. "Could we have built more stealth in there? Probably. We feel this is the good-enough option."

Each Super Hornet will cost roughly $30 million to $35 million apiece.

While the Navy has said it will buy 1,000 Super Hornets, Aboulafia expects that number to drop significantly -- pushing the cost of each plane closer to $50 million.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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