Can the endangered Rhino be saved?

On the surface, it would appear as though the United States Navy is continuing to give lukewarm support to the F-35.  By lukewarm, I mean do everything but leave the program outright.  Cutting orders, placing more emphasis on electronic attack and standoff weapons, and even outright stating that "stealth maybe overrated".

Not only that, but the USN needs to make up for F-35C development delays by extending the life of its legacy F/A-18C/D Hornets, much like Canada has done.   In the meantime, the slack has to be picked up by the newer Super Hornets.  The trouble is, these Rhinos have already been quite the workhorse thanks to increased operations (War on Terror, ISIS, etc, etc...).  This extra pressure on the Super Hornet fleet could lead to the need for their own life extension program being needed sooner than later, leading to a similar problem.

Simply put, in order for the USN to maintain its current level of fighter power into the foreseeable future, it need more fighter aircraft.  Now.

Filling this gap with F-35Cs is a non-starter.  The JSF simply is not ready yet.  Nor will it be ready anytime this decade.  IOC is planned for 2019.  Block 3F capability (which includes the gun) should arrive at around the same time.  Full Block 4 capability (AIM-9X, SDBs, and Joint Strike Missile) will not be ready until the 2020s.  Keep in mind these timelines could easily be pushed even further into the future.

That really only leaves one option:  More Super Hornets.

Boeing has managed to keep the Super Hornet production line running at a snail's pace.  Keeping that line running makes sense both financially and strategically.  As long as that line exists, however, the juggernaut that is known as the JSF has a competitor for sales and a "back-up plan" if the decision was made to cancel or severely cut F-35 production.

The U.S. Department of Defense now has to make the same decision as Cortez during his Mexican expedition.  Do they burn the ships, never to look back?  Or do they keep the Super Hornet alive a bit longer?


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