America’s Last Fighter Jet Makers Scramble to Keep Production Alive

A pair of Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons sit on the flight line at Balad Air Base in Iraq at sunset in 2007.

Master Sgt. Beth Holliker

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A pair of Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons sit on the flight line at Balad Air Base in Iraq at sunset in 2007.

The end is nearing for the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 lines unless more orders come in soon.

FORT WORTH, Texas — In the southwest corner of a mile-long assembly plant here, an F-16 fighter jet is slowly coming to life. That plane, being built for the Iraqi Air Force, is far more sophisticated than the first Falcon to come off this production line more than 40 years ago, but it soon could become one of the last.

To the northeast by 575 miles, a similar scene is playing out inside another manufacturing facility. Here it’s the F-15 Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet, two more 1970s relics that have been redesigned and modernized heavily over the decades.

Without more orders by the U.S. military or its allies, production of these three planes, which gave America supremacy of the skies for more than four decades, will halt by 2020.

Lockheed and Boeing, the firms that build these warplanes, are actively seeking customers for these jets, but they’re in far different predicaments. Lockheed is about to quadruple production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane that it plans to sell to the U.S. and its allies for 30 years or longer. More than 3,000 orders are expected for the plane globally, nearly 2,500 for the U.S Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

For Boeing, the stakes are higher. The end of the F-15 and F/A-18 means it would no longer build high-performance fighter jets, leaving Lockheed as the only such American manufacturer. Both companies will continue to support and upgrade the thousands of F-15s, F-16s, and F/A-18s flying in the U.S. and abroad.

Related: F-35 Production Set to Quadruple As Massive Factory Retools

As it searches for more customers, Boeing has slowed Super Hornet production to just two aircraft per month in hopes additional orders will extend production into the 2020s. Congress already has purchased more F/A-18s and EA-18G Growlers, electronic attack versions of the Super Hornet, for the U.S Navy in recent years. Without more, Super Hornet and Growler production would end in 2018, Dan Gillian, the Boeing vice president who oversees both aircraft, said on Wednesday .

The U.S. Navy says it needs about 30 new Super Hornets, but it has only funded two in the Pentagon’s 2017 war budget. It has listed 14 planes as “unfunded priorities” and money would be needed for an additional 14 planes in 2018.

Boeing has also been waiting for the Obama administration to approve a 28-aircraft sale to Kuwait.

“Kuwait is the key bridge to get from [fiscal] 2017 to [fiscal] 2018,” Gillian said. “We’re working hard with the U.S. Navy to make all of those things happen.”

If the sale to Kuwait goes through, more international sales could open up, the largest of which could be in Canada, wrote Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, in a recent note to investors. Gillian listed Belgium, Denmark, FInland, Spain, and India as potential Super Hornet customers. The company is also pushing the U.S. Navy to buy as many as 100 additional Super Hornets and Growlers to meet future demand and counter threats.

The Super Hornets, and their older Hornet predecessors have been heavily used throughout the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Iraq and Syria. The Navy is expected to fly Super Hornets and Growlers through the 2030s. That means nearly 568 jets will need upgrades allowing them to fly 9,000 hours. Without the upgrade the planes can only fly for 6,000 hours.

“We are working on capacity and capability to make sure that the planes evolve to meet the threats in the ‘20s and the ‘30s,” GIllian said.

The firm is also offering the Navy additional upgrades, not currently on the books, including to the cockpit and for special conformal fuel tanks that would all the jets to fly higher and further.

Boeing is on the books to build F-15s for Saudi Arabia through 2019. Qatar also wants to buy F-15s, but the Obama administration has not approved the deal, reportedly over concerns from Israel.

At the Lockheed plant in Fort Worth, there are signs the end of F-16 production is near as several assembly stations where F-16s were built sit empty.

“We are avidly trying to continue the production line through 2020,” Kevin McCormick, an employee at the plant for more than 30 years, said during a tour last week. “Unfortunately we’re probably going to have a gap in the production line that’s currently in the flow versus what we get online after the next contracting action.”

Most F-16 production employees will be reassigned to the F-35 program as that project ramps up, according to a Lockheed spokesman. Lockheed and General Dynamics have built 4,571 F-16s in 138 different configurations. Lockheed, which acquired General Dynamics military aircraft division in 1993, has orders for only 17 more Falcons.

“It’s a testimony…to the value of the airplane. It’s a great airplane,” said Randy Howard, Lockheed’s head of F-16 business development. “It’s designed in a way that no other aircraft has ever been designed before and really since.”

When the program began, the U.S. Air Force and four allies, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, and Norway, planned to buy 998 F-16s, Howard said. That grew to 27 allies.

“You think of all the things this airplane has been able to do,” Howard said. “Israel and Egypt, it’s been a strong foundation of the balance of that relationship since the late 1970s.”

F-16s today have newer avionics, bigger fuel tanks, greater range and can carry more bombs.

“As time has gone on, we’ve moved from a lightweight fighter, to a multirole fighter, to where we are today with taking the latest technologies off our fifth-generation airplanes, to the extent that we can, reinserting those back into the F-16,” Howard said.

The company has plans to make structural improvements to the F-16s that remain in military service even after production stops. The company is now pushing what it calls the F-16V, a new configuration that includes some of the technology developed for its successor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The upgrades include a new mission computer and Northrop Grumman-made radar, which is common with the same system used on the F-35. That allows the plane to track more targets in the air and on the ground.

The configuration is part of the upgrade the U.S. is offering Taiwans existing fleet in lieu of selling new F-16s. Lockheed is also pitching the upgrades to Indonesia. Howard said the company is in discussions “with multiple countries for upgrades of their existing F-16s.”

Lockheed is eyeing more F-16 sales in Southeast Asia, Colombia, and Bahrain, Howard said. The U.S. government recently approved a deal for eight F-16s to Pakistan, but Islamabad has yet to sign a contract.

The company is also talking to Eastern European countries that fly old Soviet-made fighter jets.

“There’s a lot of opportunities out there,” Howard said.

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