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GAO drills into costs of extending 'service life' of F/A-18 fighters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 23, 2012 - WASHINGTON – The last decade has been tough on the Navy’s fleet of F/A-18 Super Hornets, the St. Louis-assembled fighters that have been deployed from aircraft carriers on thousands of missions over Iraq and other hot spots.

High usage of the Hornets – coupled with the delays in full-scale production of the next-generation fighter, the stealthy F-35 – is leading the Navy to widen its plans to extend the “service life” of its aging F/A-18s. 

While the need for the versatile Hornets is widely recognized, some lawmakers are scrutinizing the $2.2 billion cost estimate for extending the service life (by about 1,400 flying hours apiece) of 150 of the Navy’s 624 Hornets. One concern is that estimates may be too low because they do not include the cost of likely upgrades to the capability of the fighters.

Asked to examine the cost estimates at the request of two U.S. House panels, the Government Accountability Office recommended in a new report, “Better Cost Estimates Needed for Extending the Service Life of Selected F-16s and F/A-18s," that the Navy “enhance the credibility” of its estimates, in part to reflect the likely added cost of upgrading the fighters.

Any change in the Pentagon's strategy on Super Hornet acquisition is of potential importance to the St. Louis region, where about 4,000 Boeing Co. employees are involved in producing Super Hornets and its electronic-warfare variant, the EA-18G Growler aircraft. 

Buying new Super Hornets is an expensive proposition – at an average cost to the Navy of about $50 million apiece – especially at a time when Pentagon cutbacks seem likely as a result of congressional budget deals. In fact, the Navy already is in the midst of a multiyear contract, signed late in 2010, to buy 66 new Super Hornets and 58 Growlers from Boeing through 2015.

But those new Hornets are barely enough to replace the older aircraft that are lost or being retired. And while the cost of new Hornets is known, the cost of retooling and upgrading existing Hornets represents merely a rough estimate, the GAO indicated.

If further delays continue to postpone the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the number of older Hornets that need to be “extended” and upgraded may grow to 280 planes. At the upper limits of cost estimates, retooling and improving all those Hornets could cost well above $4 billion.

While the GAO said the initial Navy estimates were well-documented, its report said, “The estimates were not fully credible in part because they did not assess the extent to which the total costs could change if additional work is done or more aircraft are included in the programs.” The report also said the costs “have not been compared to an independently developed estimate.”

The Pentagon concurred with the GAO recommendations and a Boeing spokeswoman, Chamila Jayaweera, said the company is “performing engineering analysis and conducting high flight-hour fleet aircraft inspections to assist the Navy in assessing the expected service life of in-service aircraft.”

In a statement to the Beacon, Jayaweera said Boeing “continues to work closely with the U.S. Navy to ensure it preserves the appropriate strike-fighter force structure, by both obtaining the maximum safe service life from the existing F/A-18 Hornet fleet and by continuously driving affordability and capability into new-production F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growlers.”

So far, the Hornets have had a good safety record on Navy missions. When they are assembled in St. Louis, the service life of a Super Hornet is projected at about 6,000 hours. According to a Navy Times article, some of the Navy's E/F-version Hornets already have flown nearly 4,000 hours. Ideally, the Navy would like to get at least 8,000 flight hours out of retooled Hornets, keeping them active until new F-35s finally arrive.

To gauge costs better, the GAO wants the Navy to do a “full sensitivity” analysis of the retooling and upgrade costs, including an assessment of the possible range of costs – as well as independent estimates of what those costs should be. The same GAO report offered a similar take on the Air Force’s plans to extend the service life of 300 F-16 fighters for $2.6 billion.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers plan to use the more reliable cost estimates in making decisions on funding the Super Hornet lifespan extensions.

Staffers on the Senate Armed Services Committee “seem to agree with the GAO that the Navy and the Air Force must ensure that their cost estimates for plans to extend the service life of F-16s and F/A-18s are accurate and reliable,” said one source.

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