Boeing [BA] is hopeful that potential Super Hornet orders from the Navy in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 and an expected sale of jets to Kuwait could extend the F/A-18E/F production line until 2020, and its program manager told reporters on May 11 that he believes the service will need far more new Super Hornets than the 24 to 36 planes it has estimated, further stretching the line.

However, the Kuwait deal will be critical in bridging production of fiscal ’17 jet procurement with a possible order the next year, Dan Gillian, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for F/A-18, said during a briefing at the company’s Arlington office.

The company currently manufactures two F/A-18E/F Super Hornets or E/A-18G Growlers a month at its facility in St. Louis, Mo. That pace is the minimum rate necessary to sustain production. Gillian expects that deliveries for the fiscal 2017 order would wrap up in the beginning of 2019. The 24 jets for Kuwait would then fill the rest of 2019 before the Navy’s 2018 order starts production in 2020.

“Our current plan, based on where we’re at with this conversation, is that the pieces fit together and we’re executing the plan,” he said. “If things happen and things change…those would all be things that could happen that you have to make a different business decision at that point in time, but right now we feel pretty confident about those three things happening in that order.”

The next production decision is scheduled for later this year. “Based on where we see things going with Kuwait, we would expect to have a good enough demand signal there to feel confident” in ordering the long lead materials needed to be ready for production, Gillian said. “Sometimes a contract lags a little bit, but there’s lots of different ways for a demand signal to feel good enough for a company to move out.”

Ultimately, Gillian believes the Navy will need to buy 100 new planes as well as a service life extension program (SLEP) for all of its current Super Hornets in order to meet operational demands and bridge the gap to the F-35, he said. Those numbers also would allow the service to field two F-35 and two Super Hornet squadrons per carrier air wing.

Boeing intends to bring two Super Hornets to St. Louis to start assessing what work will be needed to bring the jets from 6,000 to 9,000 hours of service life. The biggest challenge during the SLEP process will be managing the workflow, he said. The company can’t control when the planes hit 6,000 hours, and every aircraft has unique problems.

“We learned a lot from the classic Hornet [SLEP],” he said. “We think the Super Hornet is in a better starting place because of those lessons learned.” 

The service life extension might also be an opportunity for the Navy to consider adding new capabilities to the aircraft, Gillian said. Boeing has revamped its “Advanced Super Hornet” concept and continues to market those upgrades to the service.

The Navy has already decided to incorporate some of those enhancements, including the integrated defensive electronic countermeasures (IDECM) Block IV, which will help protect the plane against electronic warfare attacks, and the infrared search and track (IRST21) sensor that will improve its ability to find, identify and track targets.

But the SLEP could be an change for the Navy to cut in capabilities that require more invasive changes to the aircraft, like a new advanced cockpit system with a 10 by 19 inch display and improved graphics, as well as conformal fuel tanks that increase the range and loiter time of aircraft, Gillian said. Moving to an active electronically scanned array radar could also happen during that time.

The company is also looking to potential foreign sales to countries such as Canada, Spain, Finland and India, he said

Denmark announced May 12 its intention to buy the F-35 made by Lockheed Martin [LMT] instead of the Super Hornet. Gillian on May 11 said Boeing had not been formally notified by the Danish government and could not comment.