Boeing Pitches Navy to Drop F-35Cs, Buy F-18s

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It’s air-to-air combat, only with words and numbers, not bullets and missiles. The words and numbers are being fired in the latest push by Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) to persuade the U.S. Navy to substitute planned purchases of the Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT) F-35C fighter jet with Boeing’s own F/A-18 Super Hornet and Advanced Super Hornet fighters.

According to a report in Defense One, Boeing is circulating a one-page white paper urging the Navy to purchase more F/A-18s and fewer F-35Cs. The white paper is “unbranded and does not mention Boeing,” but makes an argument that the company has been making on and off for years: over the course of 20 years, purchasing F/A-18s will save the Navy about $30 billion.

Defense One cited the white paper’s contents:

The U.S. Navy currently plans to have a Carrier Air Wing mix of 3 squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets and 1 squadron of F-35Cs in 2028 transitioning to 2 squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets and 2 squadrons of F-35C in 2033. This leaves significant capability gaps against emerging threats and under the current aircraft procurement plan leaves the Navy with a significant inventory shortfall. … Adding additional F-35Cs will not solve this capability gap and will be prohibitively expensive. Adding Advanced Super Hornet F/A-18XT squadrons gives the Carrier Air Wing a significant edge against future adversaries and is an affordable solution to the inventory challenge.

Boeing revved up its promotion of the F/A-18s shortly after then president-elect Donald Trump criticized the F-35 program as “out of control.” The Pentagon initiated a capabilities review of the two fighters shortly after Trump took office and appointed James Mattis as Secretary of Defense.

If the Navy were to buy two squadrons of the new F-18s instead of F-35Cs, according to a report at Breaking Defense that cites the white paper, the Navy would save $8 billion in procurement costs and an additional $1.4 billion annually in operations and maintenance costs.

There are nonbelievers in the proposed substitution. At a confirmation hearing Thursday, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, told the Senate panel, “As a general matter, the real thing I don’t think you can do with an F-18 or an F-15 or an F-16 is give it stealth capability retroactively.” Wilson is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and has been president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology since 2013. She is also a former U.S. representative from New Mexico.

The war of words probably will continue even after the Mattis-ordered review is completed. After all, there are billions of dollars at stake both Boeing and Lockheed.