ST. LOUIS COUNTY – The war in Ukraine could spell trouble for one of the region’s key assembly lines.
The Russian incursion upsets military priorities in Germany, the latest foreign customer committed to buying Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. In a post-invasion speech, the German Chancellor suggested his country could instead buy Lockheed Martin’s newer, more stealthy F-35s and European aircraft.
And if that happens, it could leave Boeing and thousands of workers here and across the country in a bind.
Boeing’s top customer, the US Navy, is already trying to limit new Super Hornet purchases, a move that could leave the line with no orders after 2024. The company has bet on German orders for Super Hornets and Growlers, their variants of electronic warfare, to fill the void.
“It’s a difficult situation,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director of Aerodynamic Advisory.
Boeing downplayed the threat.
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“We fully support the German government’s decision to evaluate its procurement,” the company said in a statement. “We are confident that our offering of Super Hornet and Growler is unmatched for cost, performance and commitment to Germany.”
Analysts said Ukraine’s invasion could also prompt Congress to approve a long-delayed lifeline for the program from Washington.
And even if they’re wrong, this wouldn’t be the end of Boeing’s operations in St. Louis. F-15 fighter jets, MQ-25 refueling drones, smart bombs and the T-7 training jet are also built here.
But the Super Hornet would be a great loss. The plane remains one of the company’s most profitable products and an integral part of its effort to build a vitally important next-generation fighter for the Pentagon.
Introduced in the 1990s, it is a general-purpose naval workhorse built to live on a carrier deck and handle any mission thrown at it, from dogfights and airstrikes to mid-air refueling of aircraft. Over the past two decades, Congress has committed more than $50 billion to nearly 700 aircraft.
But in recent years, it’s been a tougher sell.
Increasingly, naval officials are insisting on pouring more of their limited resources into developing their next-generation fighter, and they’ve been looking for money in the Super Hornet program.
It wasn’t much sunnier overseas. The past quarter century has gained only two foreign customers: Australia and Kuwait. And ever since the Texas-built F-35 became available, it’s been the clear favorite of American allies.
Germany bucked this trend two years ago, announcing plans to purchase 30 Super Hornets and 15 Growler electronic warfare aircraft to replace aging European-made Panavia Tornados capable of carrying US nuclear bombs.
But analysts say that was a political decision, not a knock on the F-35: Germany and France were working together on their own next-generation jet. France had made it clear to Germany that buying the F-35 would torpedo the effort.
Since then, increasing numbers of Western allies have embraced the F-35, cementing their claim to be the fighter of the free world. Germany installed a new leader, prompting a review of the Super Hornet purchase.
And when the new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, spoke before Parliament on February 27 about fighting Russia in Europe, he was talking about F-35s and electronic-attack Eurofighters, not Super Hornets and Growlers.
“There is a feeling that the F/A-18 is on its way out,” said Bryan Clark, an analyst at the Hudson Institute.
However, nothing is certain until there is a contract. And even if Germany drops the Super Hornets, the country can still buy the Growlers.
“Electronic attacks are something they could use,” Clark said, “and European counterparts can’t match.”
Super Hornets continue to be considered in India as well. And at home, the invasion is urging Congress to approve a long-delayed defense budget that directs the Navy to buy more planes over admirals’ objections, said Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But there are also headwinds.
These growlers don’t have the same range as the F-35s they may be called upon to support, Clark said.
AeroDynamic Advisory analyst Aboulafia believes French manufacturer Dassault could have an advantage in India as the country already operates some of the company’s aircraft.
And while Boeing has defied the odds on Capitol Hill for years, lobbying here doesn’t get any easier. Naval leaders have publicly opposed new Super Hornets, stating that they see no practical use for them after the 2030s. And if there is no German order waiting in 2026, it would be more difficult for Boeing to request a temporary job.
“You could say it’s a bridge order,” Aboulafia said. “But not what it would be a bridge to.”