WASHINGTON -- The Navy's newest warplane, the FA-18 Super Hornet, appears to have survived its first dogfight, preserving 400 high-paying engineering and scientific jobs in Maryland.
The General Accounting Office, created by Congress to help ensure tax dollars are spent wisely, wants to scuttle the sophisticated fighter-attack jet undergoing flight tests at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. The GAO says the plane is too expensive for the punch it can deliver.
The agency, which claims to have saved taxpayers $16 billion last year, is urging Defense Secretary William J. Perry to scrap the $64 billion program -- one of the most expensive aviation programs ever -- or Congress to block funding until the plane is re-evaluated.
But inside the Pentagon the Super Hornet gets blue-ribbon support. Said Rear Adm. Dennis McGinn, chief of naval air warfare: "There is no threat to the FA-18E/F program. We are, in fact, exactly on the right track."
And a House-Senate conference committee, ignoring the GAO's call for a funding cut, last week approved President Clinton's $2.15 billion request for 12 more Super Hornets in a $265.6 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 1977.
At stake for Maryland: the three-year $100 million performance evaluation at Patuxent River, which started in February.
At issue is whether the Super Hornet is worth its price tag. The plane is estimated to cost between $43 million and $53 million, depending on how many are ordered. The long-serving FA-18C/D Hornet cost $23 million. Both Hornets and Super Hornets are designed to operate from carriers.
It has taken nine years to develop the latest model, built by McDonnell Douglas Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., General Electric Co. and Hughes Aircraft Co.
Three of the new strike jets are already being tested by a Navy-industry team of pilots at Patuxent River and a fourth is due to arrive in weeks.
Lt. Frank Morley, 29, a Navy test pilot who has flown the FA-18E and F prototypes for 25 hours at Patuxent and who previously clocked 1,000 hours in the C and D models, said: "The E/F, so far, offers longer range, greater endurance, more payload and enhanced survivability."
Morley has been "pushing the envelope" of the new plane to see how the engines perform, how well it flies, how fast it goes and how sharply it can turn.
"The airplane handles tremendously. I think it's fantastic," he said, adding that he would be one of two test pilots to make the first carrier landings with the Super Hornet in January. "It's going to make a good plane flying around the boat [carrier]," he said.
But a long-term concern still threatens the Super Hornet.
The House-Senate conferees on defense spending ordered a major study of the affordability and composition of the Pentagon's entire tactical fighter modernization program, which includes the Super Hornet.
Joint Strike Fighter program
And they added $13 million to the administration request for $589 million to research and develop a new generation Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) for use early in the next century by the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The GAO says the JSF, at a projected cost of $33 million to $40 million, will be a better buy than the F-18E/F.
Chris Cimko, a spokeswoman for Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the GAO report arrived too late to affect this year's authorization bill.
"We are looking at it. Certainly there may be some things we will want to weigh as we go into the next [year's spending] bill," she said, adding: "There is always going to be something that is faster and better, but the question is are you going to be able to stay around to wait for that?" The GAO estimates that about 70 percent of its key recommendations are implemented within four years.
The Pentagon, according to the GAO, could save $17 billion by buying an improved model of the existing Hornet, which has been one of the Navy's main combat aircraft since 1981, and by waiting for the arrival around 2010 of the futuristic JSF.
"The next generation fighter should be considered as an alternative to the FA-18E/F," said the GAO report.
Maybe later, but not right now, responded the Navy's McGinn, from his Pentagon office.
'Not a real plane'
"What is the Joint Strike Fighter right now?" he said. "It is a series of information briefings, some technology demonstrations. It is an airplane that has not even been built, let alone flown and tested. It's not a real airplane at this point.
McGinn pointed to two possible scenarios: a JSF that turns out to be so good early next century that it would be "foolish" not to replace the Super Hornet with it; a disappointing JSF, which would open the way for increased production of the Super Hornet.
"It's a decision that will and must be made by our successors -- and only by our successors. To do that decision right now would not be in the best interests of naval aviation," the admiral said.
Paul Kaminsky, undersecretary for defense for acquisition and technology, said the option to end production of the Super Hornet in favor of the JSF "will occur no sooner than 2004" -- well beyond the termination of the flight evaluation program at Patuxent River.
Kaminsky said competition between the FA-18E/F and the JSF could lower the costs of both programs, adding: "The end result is that both programs are more efficient and more affordable."
The next major hurdle for the Super Hornet will be the decision early next year by the Defense Acquisition Board, a Pentagon panel that must approve weapons systems, on whether to move beyond prototypes and fund production of the aircraft.
Details of the F-18 dogfight These
are the General Accounting Office's major criticisms of the FA-18E/F Super Hornet strike jet and the Navy's responses:
The FA-18E/F Super Hornet will provide only marginal improvements over existing FA-18C/D Hornet models.
The Super Hornet's range could almost be matched if the Hornet
were equipped with bigger external fuel tanks.
The Super Hornet's capacity is limited, while the Hornet still has room to grow.
The weapons-carrying improvements on the Super Hornet are marginal.
The next-generation Joint Strike Fighter now being developed should replace the Super Hornet.
The Super Hornet outperforms the Hornet by up to 50 percent at both high and low altitudes.
Fitting larger fuel tanks to the Hornet would require expensive re-engineering.
The Super Hornet has spare capacity, while the Hornet cannot grow any heavier without increased risk and decreased
The Super Hornet is able to carry more defensive weapons for its own protection.
The Joint Strike Fighter, expected to enter service next century, a decade or more after the Super Hornet, "is not a near-term successor."
Pub Date: 8/14/96