The Navy may soon be asking Congress to fund the purchase of more Boeing [BA] F/A-18E/F Super Hornets separate from the formal budget request, a decision driven by problems the service has encountered trying to extend the lives of the aging F/A-18C Hornets and because of the lengthy delays for the carrier variant of the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has been telling Congress and reporters over the last few weeks that the service may have a shortfall in the number of strike fighters around the mid-2020s equivalent to two or three squadrons—or about 24 to 36 aircraft. He’s hinted at the possibility of putting Super Hornets on an unfunded request wishlist that could be sent to Congress within a week, independently of the fiscal 2016 budget proposal provided on Feb. 2.

A Navy'F/A-18 Super Hornet.  Photo: Boeing
A Navy’F/A-18 Super Hornet. Photo: Boeing

Greenert said extending the lives of the legacy Hornets has proven more difficult than expected, in part due to large levels of corrosion that weren’t discovered until the planes were opened up. Budget sequestration has deepened the problem, he said. Moreover, keeping the Hornets out of service longer than anticipated has forced the service to log more hours on the Super Hornets to meet mission demands, meaning they will wear out faster than planned, he said

The challenge has been compounded by multiple delays and restructurings over the last decade of the Joint Strike Fighter program, which has a long history of developmental problems and cost overruns that have required the Navy and Marine Corps–as well as the Air Force–to revise their plans for procuring the fifth- generation stealth fighter jets. The Navy’s F-35C variant won’t reach initial operational capability until August 2018, when it will still be at a low production rate.

Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy’s director for air warfare (OPNAV N98), provided further details about the challenge the Navy is facing at meeting strike fighter requirements during a meeting with a few reporters on Thursday.

Manazir said over the last five years the Navy has been logging 330 hours annually on its fighters, about 30 more than planned for each aircraft. With the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, the burden has not eased, he said.

To keep pace with the wear and tear on the jets, the service would need to be buying 35-39 new fighters annually, a number the service is well below, Manazir said. That results in a gap of about 100 aircraft, he said. By adjusting readiness levels of 65 aircraft at any given time, the Navy can partially cope with it, but it still leaves a shortfall of about 35 planes, Manazir said. That number aligns with the shortage Greenert has discussed.

Once the last of the Super Hornets come off Boeing’s St. Louis production line the Navy will have nearly 600 of them. The total number of legacy F/A-18C Hornets in the fleet is in the mid-500s, the Navy says.

The Navy has moved to extend the service lives of both aircraft from 6,000 flight hours to at least 9,000, and in some cases to as many as 10,000. But when workers started getting into the Hornets, they found “a whole bunch” of corrosion that resulted in “unplanned work,” Manazir said.

That, coupled with sequestered budgets and an insufficiently sized workforce to deal with the greater scope of the job, has extended the depot period from about 400 days by at least 50 percent to more than 600 days, Manazir said.

“What we didn’t plan for, because we could not forecast it, was the amount of corrosion we found inside each airframe,” Manazir.

An F-35C on the USS Nimitz during 2014 testing. Photo: Navy
An F-35C on the USS Nimitz during 2014 testing. Photo: Navy

The F-35C is slated to replace the remaining legacy Hornets, which would begin retirement in the early to mid-2020s, when the Navy plans to integrate carrier strike air wings consisting of the F-35Cs and Super Hornets. More F/A-18E/Fs could help alleviate gaps projected to arise, he said.

“I reduce my risk if I procure more Super Hornets,” Manazir said, emphasizing that the decision to pursue that option lies with Greenert. Manazir said no new Super Hornet orders means he would have to be sure he’d be able to extend the lives of all 563 Hornets despite the challenges in the depot.

“That is not a trivial act,” he said.

The Navy is lengthening the service lives of the Hornets to compensate for the delays on the F-35C and the budget constraints that have slowed buys. Over the last three budget cycles–fiscals 2014, 2015, 2016–the Department of the Navy has removed a combined 159 Marine F-35Bs and Navy F-35Cs from the five-year plan, most of those being the Navy variant, Manazir said.

“I am not producing enough strike fighters,” he said.

The Navy does not plan to go to initial operational capability on the F-35C until 2018, two to three years later than the Marine Corps and Air Force versions, because the Navy wants it ready to go with more sophisticated software that allows for the full complement of weapons for the air wing as well as for complete interoperability with the Super Hornets, Manazir said.

The Navy’s annual F-35C procurement plans marginally increase over the next several years, hitting the 20 mark in 2020–still well below the 35-39 annual production level Manazir cited. He said while buying the F-35Cs presents a “far-term challenge,” he dismissed the notion the Navy would prefer to keep flying F/A-18Super Hornets as opposed to the more expensive F-35Cs, calling such assertions a “myth.”

“My real procurement goal is to get more F-35Cs,” he said, adding: “In order for me to win in 2024, I have to have F-35Cs flying with F/A-18 Es and Fs. I have to,” he said.

“If I only had F/A-18 Es and Fs in 2024, I can’t win. It’s fourth generation,” Manazir said.

For the last few years Boeing has been trying to persuade the Navy and Congress to support additional Super Hornet purchases, as well as more buys of the EA-18G Growler electronic attack jets. Both share an airframe. Despite relative success in getting more buys, the company is still faced with the prospect of closing the line at the end of 2017 if there are no new orders.