The US Navy is currently slated to alter the composition of carrier wing groups by 2033. Specifically, the groups will maintain two Super Hornet squadrons and two Joint Strike Fighter squadrons, according to a copy of the white paper obtained by Defense One.
The shift leaves "significant capability gaps," according to Boeing’s lobbyists. "Additional F-35Cs will not solve this capability gap and will be prohibitively expensive" while the Super Hornets offer “an affordable solution to the inventory challenge.” Over two decades’ time, the Pentagon would save "about $30 billion."
To add intrigue to the drama, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg sat in Trump Tower with then President-elect Donald Trump as he took a call with Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson on January 17. While appearing off-guard, Muilenburg could listen to the negotiations about Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during his visit.
The Pentagon’s original bid sent out to defense contractors for the multi-role joint strike fighter was a winner-take-all contract.
Prior to Trump’s comments that the program cost of the F-35 mandated that Boeing "price out" a "comparable” F/A-18 Super Hornet, some feared the Boeing jet might die off the production line as requests for the jet waned.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
Critics have pointed out that Lockheed’s F-35 and Boeing’s F/A-18 are not comparable since the F-35 is a fifth generation fighter, while the Super Hornet is classified as a fourth generation jet. "Generation" classifications generally refer to levels of stealthiness and ability to avoid radar detection.
Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered a thorough analysis to determine whether the F-35C, one of the three F-35 variants, might be more efficiently replaced by the Super Hornet. Mattis’ letter to his deputy requested the review "begin immediately with the results and recommendations made available to inform upcoming budget decisions."
It is not entirely clear how these points were incorporated into the Trump administration’s proposed budget: It called for a $54 billion increase in ‘defense’ spending. This sum would comprise roughly 80 percent of Russia’s yearly military budget.
The idea of replacing some of the F-35s with F/A-18s is unique to neither Mattis nor Trump. In November, 2013 the Congressional Budget Office said that by canceling Lockheed’s grip on supplying new aircraft to the US Navy, new F/A-18s would be “sufficiently advanced” to respond effectively to security risks the US is “likely” to encounter in the near future.
What’s difficult to fathom is that amid engine fires and take off issues, "additional cost growth" is entirely possible, per the CBO. Upgraded F/A-18s "would make comparable cost growth less likely."