The end’s in sight for the Super Hornet. Or is it?

Will the sun set on Boeing's golden goose, or can it find new orders to keep production rolling?

Boeing’s F/A-18E and F Super Hornets, and their forebears, have been part of U.S. naval aviation for so long it’s hard to imagine aircraft carriers without them. But under this month’s DoD budget submission, the Navy would accept its last new Superbug in only three years.

Big B announced on Wednesday that it had completed early delivery of the Navy’s second-to-last multi-year batch of Super Hornets and E/A-18G Growlers — 257 airplanes — and that it’s on the glide slope to continue right on through into the final multi-year. That would involve another 66 Es and Fs and 58 Gs, “to be purchased through 2013.”  Under today’s deals, including existing international orders, that would mean Boeing would deliver its last jet in 2015, said company spokesman Philip Carder.

But you don’t get to be an aerospace titan by giving up that easily. A source with knowledge of the program tells DoDBuzz there could be opportunities for additional Super Hornets with the U.S. Navy and international customers, depending on the breaks.

It’s very feasible: Boeing has made billions of dollars by exploiting delays in Lockheed’s F-35, and DoD just pushed 179 of those outside its five-year defense plan. The Navy Department specifically dialed back its total order by 48 Cs and 21 Bs in this month’s budget submission. Presumably, that will only worsen its standing “strike fighter shortfall.” The exact numbers for that “gap” fluctuate with the phases of the moon, but the Navy said last year it was 65 airplanes.  If the Navy really wants to keep 11 carriers and 10 air wings, it may need to order new jets to plug the gap.

Then there’s the possibility for international orders: “The Super Hornet is currently involved in competitions in Brazil, Malaysia, and countries in the Middle East. In addition to these countries, Boeing and our U.S. government customer are having discussions with numerous international military institutions and governments,” Carder said.

Lockheed Martin and the world’s other big fighter vendors aren’t just standing still, however. They will scrap for as many of these competitions as they can, and as India’s selection of the Dassault Rafale showed, the Euro-firms can still play in the same league as the Americans.

F-35 boosters are working overtime to dispel the cloud that has surrounded their jet. We saw this week where the Royal Air Force’s first test pilot loved the C, and Lockheed kept up the tempo on Thursday, announcing what it called a significant set of test milestones for so early in the year:

An Air Force A reached the F-35’s highest altitude yet Jan. 9 when it cruised at 43,000 feet; an A did the first low approach with the Distributed Aperture System on Jan. 17; the A had its first night flight on Jan. 18; Secretary Panetta lifted the B’s “probation” on Jan. 20 “almost a full year ahead of schedule,” as Lockheed put it; the first test aircraft, AA-1, logged 2,500 flight hours Jan. 25; and an A flew with external weapons for the first time on Feb. 16 — though it didn’t fire any.

Overall, Lockheed said, As have flown 46 times so far this year; Bs have flown 45 times; and Cs have flown 23 times. The numbers and statistics are what they are — Lockheed did not address the “software” issues Panetta mentioned several times last week to congressional lawmakers, or the C’s apparent need for rework on its arrester hook.

Bottom line: Everyone involved is keenly aware that this is a battle over a shrinking pool of money. Boeing’s argument is that the F-35 will never get here. Lockheed’s is that it’s right around the corner. The Super Hornet’s survival or extinction — and possibly that of the companies involved here — will depend on the firms’ ability to make policymakers believe one pitch and not the other.