Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) is considering a plan to overhaul its venerable F/A-18 Super Hornet to include structural upgrades and a stealth coating that would extend the plane’s flight-hour limit by 50%. The company hopes to begin the service life modification (SLM) program in April 2018, according to a report in Aviation Week.
Rather than being a threat to Lockheed Martin Corp.’s (NYSE: LMT) F-35, the upgraded Super Hornets may provide a stop-gap for low readiness levels in the U.S. armed forces fight fleets. On any given day, the U.S. Navy can fly just 52% of its F/A-18 fleet, including 44% of the legacy Hornets and 54% of the new Super Hornets.
The primary work to be done under the SLM would be structural upgrades, but Boeing is also considering including some stealth capability. How stealthy is the question.
Boeing’s program manager on the F/A-18 and EA-18 Growler (an electronic warfare version of the plane) said:
At some point we drew a line that would allow us to be stealthy enough in a balanced survivable way to be effective, and that is what we think we have. The F-35 is a stealthier airplane, but we have a balanced approach to survivability, including electronic warfare and self-protection.
The SLM is expected to run through fiscal year 2028 and includes an overhaul to more than 400 Navy Super Hornets at Boeing’s facilities in St. Louis and San Antonio. Work on the first planes is expected to take 18 months, but Boeing hopes to cut that to around 12 months.
Boeing presented its upgrade plan to Trump administration officials last March, following several presidential tweets complaining about the high cost of Lockheed’s F-35 and pronouncing the program “out of control.”
The Navy sees the two aircraft as complementary because the Super Hornet can carry a lot of payload while the F-35’s full stealth capability and sensors gives the plane the ability to penetrate and destroy enemy air defenses that then allows the Super Hornets to deliver that payload.
Boeing shares traded down about 1% early Thursday, at $257.27 in a 52-week range of $134.25 to $263.79.