Boeing’s iron Eagles, part 2

If "reductions are expected" for the F-35, what opportunities could that open up for its older-model rivals?

In Paris last year, Boeing’s top leaders raised the possibility that it could keep building F-15s all the way into the 2020s — quite a landmark for a fighter that first flew when Richard Nixon was president.

Today, having locked down the deal with Saudi Arabia that was still in the works last summer, Boeing’s ambitions now look realistic. If it can sell South Korea on its wham-o-dyne new Eagles or Silent Eagles — elbowing out Lockheed Martin and its F-35 — Boeing could wind up with a total run of around 144 new airplanes and years worth of work.

At the same time as company officials are salivating over that potential deal, get a load of this: As our eminent colleague John Reed writes over at Defense Tech, Boeing also is doing its utmost to sell its other flagship fighter, the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Who cares that it first flew in 1978 — today’s new-model jets are “stealth killers,” a top Boeing official told Reed, setting them up as a smart shopper’s alternative to certain other combat aircraft, and one that can defeat those other airplanes’ advantages anyway.

Wrote Reed:

Basically, the Super Hornet’s active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar — and it’s ability to jam enemy radars and electronic countermeasures — combined with the jet’s infrared search and track (IRST) system will allow it to compete with low-observable jets, said Phil Mills, director of Boeing’s F-X program in an interview just days before Boeing lost that contest to Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The radars and infrared sensors on today’s airplanes can combine to help crews spot “stealthy” red air, Mills told Reed. So if you’re the Republic of Korea Air Force and you’re worried about theoretical incursions by Chinese J-20s, no need to spend all that money on F-35s, Boeing might say — our jets do the job, cost less, and we’re rolling them out today like Ford F-150s.

Lockheed would probably roll its eyes that this kind of pitch — clearly Japan didn’t buy it, the company would say, and the South Koreans or Brazilians shouldn’t either. But as a business question, Boeing has proven that its 1970s-vintage warplanes can stand toe-to-toe with newer model jets, and it’s not going to give up on that strategy.

Here we come to an area of pure speculation, informed by one kernel of potential fact. In their story Tuesday about Secretary Panetta’s planned budget and strategy rollout, the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker wrote this:

The chief target for weapons cuts is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, one of the most expensive weapons programs in history. The Pentagon has plans to spend nearly $400 billion to buy 2,500 of the stealth jets through 2035, but reductions are expected.

“Reductions are expected?” No way to know what that actually means — whether the DoD officials who gave this read-ahead said that or whether our reporters are drawing their own (reasonable) conclusions. But let’s say they’re right. As we’ve talked about many times, one plausible scenario for the end of the F-35 is the death spiral: Program cancellations increase the unit cost, which leads to more cancellations, and so on. The house of cards falls apart. What are the services that were counting on the F-35 — especially the Air Force — supposed to do?

What Boeing might hope is that they swallow their pride, and their declarations that they’ll never again buy “fourth-generation” aircraft, and pick up some bargain basement F-15s. Boeing has used this strategy to great success with the U.S. Navy, locking the government into multi-year deals for its full program because, c’mon, we’re churnin’ these babies out and you’re getting a heckuva deal!

Boeing has also convinced Australia to buy new Super Hornets as a stopgap for its behind-schedule F-35s. If the F-35 continues to take longer than originally planned, the Aussies could well order more Super Hornets. At very least, Boeing could make clear to Congress and the U.S. Air Force that it’s going to keep on building new F-15s — which the U.S. officials who announced the Saudi deal called some of the best airplanes in the world — and it’s ready to deal.

Lockheed might have something to say to its friends in Congress about all this, too.