By Geoff Fein

Boeing [BA] and the Navy are working closely to determine the make up of a potential multi-year contract for more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, according to a company executive.

However, due to the nature of the ongoing defense budget discussions, details of any possible future Super Hornet buys remains unknown, Bob Gower, vice president F/A-18 and EA- 18 programs for global strike systems, told Defense Daily in a recent interview.

“We are in this period where no one is talking much inside the [Pentagon] right now,” Gower said. “We continue to work closely with the Navy to put together the contract so that, assuming when the budget comes forward in April, if they are ready to go forward with the multi-year, we will be ready to execute.”

The Navy is doing everything to make sure that that option stays alive, he added.

For several years now, Navy officials have been exploring the possibility of another multi-year contract for Super Hornets, especially in light of the service life issues with the Hornet fleet and the questions surrounding the schedule of Lockheed Martin‘s [LMT] F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

The Navy has stated that it could be facing a strike fighter shortfall of up to 125 aircraft, a number Gower believes could be higher.

Two years ago, the Navy testified of a potential fighter shortfall ranging between 50 to 200. “Indications are that the shortfall will be a lot closer to the 200 than the 100 that they have been talking about,” Gower noted.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the department is looking at programs that have serious problems.

“We clearly are not that,” Gower said. “We have delivered 380 aircraft ahead or on schedule. The [Growler] is heading through OPEVAL. If I look at all the things the Obama administration says they want in a program, right now in theater the vast majority of missions are all being done off carriers…and those are Hornets and Super Hornets.,” Gower added. “So the Super Hornet is proving itself to be a counter insurgency platform in theater.”

FY ’09 is the last year of the current multi-year contract, he said. Assuming the Navy moves forward on a new multi-year, Boeing would be under contract in December for that effort, Gower added.

But if the decision is made not to pursue a new multi-year contract, Boeing would begin to look at shutting down its production line, Gower said. “One of the significant pieces for us is the zero [aircraft] in FY ’13.”

To meet the FY ’13 buy, Boeing would have to start getting in line for material in October 2010, he added.

“[Otherwise at the] end of calendar year 2010 we would start basically shutting down the production line with a zero out in 2013,” Gower said.

And while Boeing is delivering Super Hornets to Australia and is bidding for strike fighter contracts in nine other countries, none of the international work would be seen as gap fillers in that time frame, Gower said.

“A lot of the customers look to benefitting from U.S. co-production and being able to pick off that line,” he said. “For us, it makes our win probability go up if there is concurrent production with the U.S.”

Australia is buying 24 Super Hornets. Last month Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the government was going to convert 12 of the 24 Super Hornets to EA-18 Gs. The plan would provide the Australian Super Hornets with counterterrorism capability, Fitzgibbon said.

“Boeing has worked closely with the Australian government and the U.S. Navy to meet the Royal Australian Air Force’s specific platform requirements since the March 2007 announcement that Australia would become the first international Super Hornet customer,” Gower said. “Boeing will continue to work to meet those requirements in preparation for delivery of the first RAAF Super Hornet in July, three months ahead of schedule.”

Although the Navy and Boeing are exploring the best path forward should a decision be made to sign another multi-year, little is known about how many Super Hornets would be covered in a new multi-year. Gower said the number that is most batted around is 149, which would add 60 to the program of record, he added.

“That’s a good start toward reducing the shortfall, but if the shortfall is over 200 aircraft obviously that’s just the start of fixing the shortfall issues,” Gower said. “The construct here is, if we can get a multi-year that bridges you out four to five years, depending on how they construct the multi-year, it also gives you time to see where JSF is. So it buys down a lot of risk, and leaves the options open as you watch the F-35C mature.”

The F-35C is the Navy variant of JSF.

Additionally, by going with a multi-year, as opposed to signing a one-year contract, savings to the government would be slightly more than 10 percent in cost, Gower said.

“We saved $1.7 billion on the first two multi-years, and depending on how many aircraft they buy, you’ll look at another $700 million to over a billion in savings depending upon the quantity they buy,” Gower said.

The EA-18G should complete its operational evaluation over the course of the next month, Gower said. “So far, we have not heard of any major issues in the program.”

“We are trying to hit a full-rate production decision in August. At this point, everything we see and hear is that [the] program continues to perform well,” he said. “I won’t claim success until we are finished.”

Boeing is training the first EA-18G air crews up at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash., to prepare for initial operational capability, Gower added.

“The trainers are in place, so we actually delivered the trainers the same day we got the airplanes up there. From a program perspective, I have never seen trainers delivered with the airplanes, they have always trailed them,” Gower said. “We have been able to manage this program and deliver, and I give credit to the Navy and acquisition corps. They put all the things in place that we needed to do, from an industry perspective, whether it be us or some of the other contractors, to go deliver anything we need to go field the first units and be able to quickly retire the Prowlers.”