Thursday, March 6, 2014

Does Boeing have a "Plan B" for Canada?

What could Boeing offer Canada instead of the Super Hornet?
It was no real surprise Tuesday that the Pentagon's budget request for fiscal year 2015 didn't include any funding for building more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets or EA-18G Growlers.  Boeing's St. Louis assembly plant has enough USN and Australian Super Hornet orders to keep going until 2016...  And that's it.

Boeing has a few prospects for continuing the line, but the outlook is less than rosy.  Losing Brazil to the Saab Gripen was a definite blow, as Brazil's order for 36 aircraft would have likely been just a start, with the Super Hornet possibly finding a new home on Brazil's S ãu Paulo aircraft carrier.  Denmark and Canada are still possibilities, but both are "resets" of F-35 purchases.  There is no guarantee that a fighter competition will even be declared, and even then, no guarantee the Super Hornet would win.  Denmark in particular looks like it would favor the Saab Gripen, no surprise given that it was a Draken customer.

There are a few other interested nations, like Malaysia and the Middle East, but those orders would be years away for a relatively small number of aircraft...  If the Super Hornet was even picked.

It could be that the Super Hornet's "last, best hope" is Canada, but that looks tenuous now.  While some seem to believe it is Canada's default alternative to the F-35, and that it should be "single sourced" as an interim fighter.  This ignores the other fine choices available, but whatever.

It's kind of a moot point now anyway, with Canada forgoing any new military acquisitions until 2017 (one year after Super Hornet production is likely to end).  So that raises the question:

What will Boeing do if Canada declares an open fighter competition, but it's too late to offer the Super Hornet?

OPTION 1:  Bring it back.
Boeing's "Advanced Super Hornet".
Sorry for stating the obvious, but Boeing could always simply just restart production.  It could also slow down its current production in order keep the line open long enough to secure a few more orders.  Boeing is said to be contemplating this.  This would have consequences, however.  Slower production would likely either increase unit costs or decrease Boeing's profits.

Boeing would likely bolster the Super Hornet's chances by offering up its proposed "Advanced Super Hornet" upgrades, consisting of conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), enclosed weapon pods, and other upgrades.  While these upgrades certainly help modernize the Super Hornet, they are currently funded by Boeing.  If a buyer wants them, they will likely have to pay a premium for them.

Slowing production while adding expensive upgrades doesn't help the Super Hornet's value proposition.  It would be difficult to sell a Super Hornet that costs nearly as much as an F-35.

OPTION 2:  The Eagle.
The F-15SE Silent Eagle
Much like the Super Hornet in Brazil, Boeing's F-15SE "Silent Eagle" was dealt a harsh blow when South Korea decided to pass on 60 F-15SEs in favor of 40 F-35 Lightning IIs.  South Korea seemed like a great fit for the Silent Eagle, they already have a fleet of F-15K "Slam Eagles", so integration into the force would have been a snap.  With no other current potential suitors, the Silent Eagle's future looks dim.

Then again, the F-15SE seems like it could easily take the place of the Super Hornet in Boeing's offer to Canada.  F-15 production will continue until at least 2018, and if Canada hasn't selected a new fighter by then, it might as well not bother.

There certainly would be a case for the F-15 of any variant.  While it's "king of the sky" reputation has been surpassed by the new F-22 and upgraded Flanker variants, no one can really argue with its perfect combat record of 101 victories with 0 defeats.  Arguments about it being obsolete are put to bed by the fact that the USA is bolstering forces near the Ukraine with F-15Cs.  If the USAF has confidence enough in the F-15C to counter Russian forces, than that should be enough to convince anyone.

The F-15 is a reliable workhorse, as well.  Newer F-15E models could last as long as 32,000 flight hours, and even older F-15Cs could see up to 18,000.  There is a very good chance that F-15Es built today could outlast F-35s (rated for 8,000h) that haven't even been built yet.

All this begs the question:  Why hasn't Boeing offered up the F-15SE to Canada already?  First of all, the Super Hornet would likely be an easier sell, as Canada already flies the older "legacy" F/A-18 Hornet.  Switching over to the Eagle would require additional training and infrastructure changes, adding to the overall acquisition cost.  There is also the fact that the F-15 is an expensive aircraft to operate.  While a USAF F-16 costs just over $22,000/hr to operate, the F-15C runs almost double that, at almost $42,000/hr.  Even the F-35 is estimated to come in around the mid-$30,000 range.  After 8,000 flight hours, the F-15 would cost $80 million more, almost enough to buy another jet fighter to fly alongside the F-35.

It would seem doubtful that Canada would forgo the F-35 in favor of the older F-15 that would likely cost far more in the long run.

OPTION 3:  Partner up.


No hard feelings about Brazil?
One of the inalienable truths about business is that grudges are quickly forgotten if there is an opportunity for both parties to succeed by working together.  Despite competing against each other in several fighter competitions, Boeing and Saab have agreed to team up to submit a bid for the USAF's upcoming T-X jet trainer.  There seems to be some speculation on whether this T-X contender will be based on the Gripen or an all new design, but one can certainly see the potential here.

Unlike the Super Hornet, the USAF has requested funding for the T-X program.  $600 million in the next 5 years.

When Saab backed out of consideration for Canada's "reset" last year, it did so stating that it had doubts about whether it would be a fair competition.  What raises suspicion is that Saab's partnership with Boeing was likely being negotiated at that time, so there is a chance that Saab's backing out may have been a concession to Boeing.  But perhaps there's more to the story?

With the Super Hornet out of production and the Silent Eagle's future a big long-shot, Boeing may try to stay in the running by joining up with Saab to offer the Gripen.  Gripen production is guaranteed well into the 2020s, and its cost-effectiveness gives it a clear advantage over the F-35, the Typhoon, an the Rafale.  The Gripen's low cost could even make it a tempting secondary or interim fighter for those countries determined to procure the F-35, but in lower numbers.  North Korea is still looking for 20 fighters to go with its new F-35s, remember.

With Boeing's clout, Saab's ability to sell the Gripen skyrockets.  With the Saab Gripen, Boeing gets to stay in the fighter business at least until the T-X program, probably longer.  Most importantly, it hitches itself to the only fighter that seems to be enjoying significant sales outside of the F-35 program.  While Typhoon and Rafale sales seem to be at a near standstill, the Gripen seems to be picking up steam.  The trend is very clear, governments are either choosing the high-end JSF or the affordable Gripen.  It only makes sense for Boeing to get in on the action.

Boeing's T-X concept, predating its partnership with Saab.
Hopefully, Boeing will find a way to keep Super Hornet production going, at least long enough for Canada to make a decision.    The Rhino is a damn fine fighter, not as glamorous as the F-14 or F-22, but its proven to be a steady workhorse.  The outlook seems rather grim however.  Hopefully, Boeing will still be in the jet fighter business long after the Super Hornet is gone.

2 comments:

  1. I'm not as optimistic as you about Boeing future on the fighter jet market (forgive me... pessimism is a French thing!). USA made a clear choice : Lockheed will be the last man standing as the US fighter jet manufacturer. In addition, we can see this choice is mainly political because on the operational side we know US Navy asks for more Super Hornet.
    Continued production on export sales alone seems doubtful and becomes more and more unlikely : as you stated, with the probable (though unfair) failure in South Korea, it is difficult to see any more order for F-15, and without USN orders Super Hornet must either get an export sale in the next six months or slow production to get little more time, despite little hope...

    Partnership with Saab is interesting but I don't see consequences for Boeing yet : To compete on the T-X program, teaming up with an American company is mandatory for Saab. The result can be interesting. But, as far as combat jets are concerned, Boeing seems to have nothing to win with Saab : unless USA purchase Gripen, Saab will already get enough difficulties to include Brazil and Swiss partners in Gripen E/F design and production. So Boeing would provide Saab commercial support and, in exchange... get money at each sale? That's not clear in my mind so... wait and see.

    All that is bad news for Canada : In my opinion, there is now even more
    chance you will stick to the F-35, even without an open competition. It
    seems that many saw Super Hornet as the only true alternative to F-35. Damn "buy American" thing!

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  2. Losing the $3.1 billion until 'the military can spend it' seems a strange way of putting things unless the military has decided that the answer to bestfighter4canada is hardly any fighters for Canada! After all at current prices of $120 million for an F-35 that's only the equivalent of 25 aircraft. Even with the Typhoon at $80 million it's only 38 aircraft. So is the real story here that the government has actually decided to leave the countries defences in the hands of the US and not bother?

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