Ahead of schedule and under budget, Boeing delivered the first of an expected 85 operational models of its EF-18G Growler to the U.S. Navy in early June, followed by three more during July and August. Electronic attack squadron VAQ-129 based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, received the aircraft, which are expected to enter operational evaluation in September as the fleet readiness squadron fills out to five aircraft.
Under a $1.2 billion system development and demonstration contract signed in December 2003, the fighter derivative made its first flight less than three years later and entered low-rate initial production in 2007. Based on the two-seat Block II F/A-18F, which began production in mid-2005, the Growler is latest member of the versatile Hornet family. Its name was chosen as homage to the aircraft it was designed to replace, the EA-6B Prowler, which entered service in 1971.
The aircraft features the Raytheon APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which can operate in air-to-air and air-to-ground modes nearly simultaneously, as well as an airborne electronic attack suite, the majority of which is installed on a pallet in the gun bay and in two wingtip pods. The EF-18G retains nine weapons stations to carry defensive missiles or other mission-specific stores. The aircraft’s primary missions will be attack against communications threats and suppression of enemy air defense.
The Growler is assembled in Building 67, on the same assembly line as its F/A-18E and F model siblings, at Boeing’s plant in St. Louis, Missouri—the former home of McDonnell Douglas—and its commonality with the fighter/attack versions strengthens Boeing’s current grip on U.S. naval aviation. In constructing the latest models of the F/A-18, the company uses a lean, one-piece flow, pulse-production method. The forward airframes are assembled on special moveable cradles, and approximately every fifth day the line stops work while each airframe and its cradle is “pulsed” or slid forward on air bearings to the next station. The repositioning takes approximately 1.5 hours.
As each aircraft moves to another station, a different crew of mechanics takes over. Workers on the assembly line are required to learn the tasks of the station preceding their own and the one following it to provide backup in case of worker absence or other unforeseen situations. In addition, the line workers are given one paid hour per week in which to consider quality improvements and labor savings to the production process. According to John Campbell, director F/A-18 assembly, 90 percent of the successfully adopted modifications come from these sessions.
As part of the lean production concept, spare parts are not extensively stockpiled and generally arrive on a “just in time” basis as they are consumed. Parts required for certain assemblies are shipped in reusable kit boxes--each part neatly fitted into a foam cutout--which once emptied are returned to the subcontractor. According to Campbell, the assembly unit strives to keep a minimum two-week supply of parts, but wants no more than one month’s worth on hand at a time. The assembly facility will soon be moving to a radio-frequency tracking system for parts that will allow them to be monitored and inventoried from a centralized location.
The rear fuselage structures are assembled by Northrop Grumman in El Segundo, California. Their shipment is geared to the same production schedule maintained by Boeing, and they arrive in St. Louis just in time to be integrated into the airframe. Once the fuselage is assembled, the wings and empennage are attached. The aircraft then are moved to the final assembly building where they receive their engines, radar and other avionics, and are painted. When complete, the aircraft are fueled and flight-tested twice, once by a company pilot and once by the customer. The process, from the time the aircraft leaves the Building 67 until it is accepted by the customer, takes a month.
The line is currently dominated by the two-seat F model, whose two-seat cockpit affords more capabilities, but the production system is flexible enough to easily alternate among the three models, as well as accommodate lot-by-lot design changes and improvements. The entire production process takes six to seven months per aircraft, and any given time, there are 20 to 25 F-18s under construction. According to current U.S. Navy plans, that level will be maintained until at least 2014. The company is hoping to secure another multi-year procurement contract with the U.S. military that will keep the production lines running well past that date, and is currently offering the aircraft at a per- unit cost of $49.9 million in such a package. Boeing expects to produce 45 Super Hornets and Growlers this year. Company representatives claim that output could rise to 54 simply by decreasing the interval between pulses. Such an increase would require more staff for the second and third shifts but would not involve acquiring more tooling, Campbell said.
While the U.S. Navy has not yet received any foreign purchase requests for the EF-18G, Boeing expects the market for the EW aircraft to be much smaller than that of the Super Hornets because of their specialized nature and the restrictions under which nations would be allowed to acquire them.
In terms of international prospects, the Super Hornet has recently been invited to compete against the F-35 in Denmark. However, it was withdrawn from Switzerland’s fighter competition, despite the Alpine nation’s current use of older Hornet models. Christopher Chadwick, Boeing’s president of military aircraft, said the company viewed the competition as “low-end,” based on Swiss requirements for replacing their F-5s. “After some soul-searching, we pulled out,” he said. The F/A-18 will be heading for India this fall for flying evaluations, although Chadwick believes that country will not select a winner for its $10 billion, 126 aircraft order any sooner than 2010.
Japan is also expected to retire its remaining F-4 Phantoms and will require about another 50 fighters to replace them. Boeing expects a request for proposals in October to which Boeing could offer both the F/A-18 and F-15, depending on the specifications.