End of Boeing Warplane Production Looms

Endangered species: EA-18G Growler. This one embiggens big indeed (US Navy Photo)

Endangered species: EA-18G Growler. This one embiggens big indeed (US Navy Photo)

In an era of extreme defense retrenchment, there are basically three things you can do, as a company highly dependent on defense contracts:

  1. You can hope for the budget climate to turn around, while funding your own existence, at least, until the money runs out. This is what Evergreen Air Cargo tried to do; they lost.
  2. You can try to diversify from government-contract to commercial-contract business. This is too much of a cultural leap for companies addicted to the crack of cost-plus government contracts (we’re lookin’ at you, Booz-Allen) to do. If your company is already running both government and commercial operations, you might not be able to use all your .gov capacity on the .com side, which means wrenching cuts and layoffs. To try to shift your doomed military contract business towards the growth side of government is a variant of this play, but it certainly isn’t possible for everybody. Another variant is to try to sell to foreign militaries, but many of them are themselves addicted to the crack of the DOD Foreign Military Sales aid budget, and with that too declining, doors worldwide are slamming shut to US prime contractors.
  3. You can just roll the defense side up. You can call it a hiatus or going into standby mode, but once you’ve lost the talent and the tribal knowledge that was your defense operation, you can’t get it back economically.

Boeing Military Aircraft Company has tried #1 and all variations of #2, and is looking at #3 in the short-term future. Boeing’s military side started with the company’s own bomber plant in Wichita, and has grown through several acquisitions. No bombers have been produced in the USA in over a decade, and there are no plans to produce more. The P-8 Poseidon is a weaponized 737, and Boeing’s tanker likewise is a jetliner in a soldier suit. Boeing’s military transport line, the C-17, was acquired with McDonnell Douglas; its plant in Southern California is scheduled to close when the planes now on the schedule, which are for foreign air forces or completely on spec, are complete. Boeing’s helicopters came from acquisitions of Hughes and, much earlier, Piasecki; the AH-64 production line, too, is likely to close (Boeing didn’t retain the smaller Hughes helicopter line).

This EA-18G was painted in WWII three-tone camouflage scheme in 2010-11 for the Centennial of Naval Aviation celebration.

This EA-18G (Bu No 166899) was painted in WWII three-tone camouflage scheme in 2010-11 for the Centennial of Naval Aviation celebration. 

The production line on the bubble now — its fate will be decided in the next ninety days — is the St. Louis fighter line, also acquired in the McDonnell Douglas purchase. Foreign interest in the planes has been sunk by the jet’s uncompetitively high prices ($50 million plus for a base Super Hornet, $60 m for a Growler). This pricing is the result of decades of cost-plus sales to the US DOD.¬†With Navy orders for Super Hornet and Growler fighter and electronic-warfare aircraft cut again, the production line that produced over 5,000 Phantoms before turning out thousands of F-18s is likely to go silent — for good.

If there are, as currently projected, no F-18 E/F or EA-18G orders in the 2015 budget, the long lead time items for that production won’t be ordered in 2014, and the St Louis plant and, probably, some parts makers, will close by 2016.

Boeing has no follow-on contracts or designs for combat or cargo aircraft, and they’ve lost competition for contract after contract. Company leadership has been preoccupied with the commercial market, where Boeing faces its own challenges, and by such self-inflicted drama as the relocation of corporate HQ to a city far from any customers or plants and a botched attempt at outsourcing that traded vital intellectual property for cheap, but below-spec parts.

The US Air Force is looking to run a trainer competition. The US industrial base for military aircraft has already become so decrepit that all three of the currently announced competitors originate in foreign countries (UK, South Korea, and, we are not making this up, Russia). Boeing no longer has the capability to design such an aircraft in-house, and has been seeking partnership with SAAB of Sweden.

So that’s where we stand: during two periods of defense cuts (the 1990s and the current era), our broad and deep military aircraft industry consolidated into two massive companies, one of which is on the brink of a market exit, and neither of which can design an unarmed jet trainer.

12 thoughts on “End of Boeing Warplane Production Looms

  1. Woodsman

    A very interesting article. To think of the time and money spent on airborne platforms.

    Kelly Johnson and crew at the Skunkworks developed amazing aircraft from the ground up in relatively short times as I remember. North American pulled a rabbit out of their hat with the Mustang during WWII (made better by the addition of the Rolls powerplant). Republic-Fairchild developed the A-10 way back when, and it is undergoing almost continuous progress improvements, from what I’ve been able to find.

    Back in the ’70’s a turbo-prop version of the Mustang was developed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piper_PA-48_Enforcer . It did not seem to go anywhere. Now, some firm in South America has something similar to the Enforcer where they are trying to land a major contract. I forget the details on this, but from memory the Enforcer was similar to, or better than, the S. American offering.

    I clearly admit the workings of the defense contracting issues are an unknown subject for me, but… it seems we always keep pounding sand in a rat hole as if sand ($) is in unlimited supply.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Ed Heinemann at Douglas was similarly successful as Johnson, but of course Douglas was merged into MDD and then absorbed by Boeing, whose CEO du jour wanted only to eliminate a commercial airplane competitor (which he duly did) and get a short-term stock price bump (ditto).

      The original Mustang had to be developed in 90 days to meet Dutch Kindelberger (head of NAA)’s promise to the British that they could develop a better plane faster than they could tool up for P40 production. It was one day late, shocking the Brits who thought they had heard an empty Yank boast.

      The “Piper Enforcer” was originally developed by Cavalier, which had a business refurbing Mustangs in the 50s and 60s. It did not sell to the US military because (1) the USAF insisted on the Army having no fixed-wing armed aircraft, and (2) the USAF being led by a general whose pet cause was the elimination of propeller aircraft. Sometimes (often, for subsonic aircraft) a propeller is the right solution.

      The USAF likes four missions: strategic bombing, strategic interdiction, air superiority, and suppression of enemy air defenses. They have no interest in any of their other missions except inasmuch as they enable the Big 4. Strategic bombing was mostly ineffective in WWII until it went nuclear, and strategic interdiction has failed every time it has been tried.

      The Army developed armed helicopters after realizing that the USAF has zero interest in the sort of close air support practiced by German and Russian air forces in WWII. Helicopters need air parity or superioriy to survive, but so do any other usable CAS aircraft. Fast jets and STOVL jets have no meaningful loiter capability. (There was nothing more useless in Afghanistan early in the war than the Marine Harriers. The pilots were lions, their mounts pigs).

      Defense contracting is extremely complex, enough that they run a series of education programs grandly called the Defense Acquisition University to try to help n00bs negotiate the perilous depths of the field.

      Generally, the armed trainers that are being considered for COIN type aircraft worldwide have some advantages over a turbopropped 1941 fighter design.

  2. Aesop

    But it’s the Peace Dividend!

    America doesn’t have enemies anymore, we’re the only superpower. I read in in the NYSlimes, so it must be true.
    We don’t really need a military anymore, that’s why they’re cutting retirement pensions, manpower, and everything including probably the prosthetics budget at the VA.
    What we have are a burgeoning load of oxygen thieves collecting welfare, and refunds on taxes never paid, we have a TSA that can’t find it’s own backside with both hands and a mirror, helpfully practicing for that final exam by groping octogenarian nuns and 4 year old girls, expanding it geheimstatspolizei-like powers to railroads, highways, and presumably trips to the bathroom during commercials, and a border patrol that’s so competent they catch less people now that it’s tripled in size than it used to catch with far less personnel. Only government can invent a graph where performance curves back towards zero as staffing approaches infinity (or, in the case of TSA, rises vertically right on the y-axis to the moon, which is the only government project with a chance of getting there in the foreseeable future).

    If Boeing would switch to building blimps (perhaps they could helpfully buy out Goodyear) they’d probably have military orders through 2095, and doubly so if they’d open the dirigible factory(ies) in key congressional districts and grease a few congressional palms. It works worked for Lockheed, time after time.

    As for new jet trainers, given the dwindling budget for new personnel and ongoing training, the company positioned to exploit that need best is Microsoft.

    Somebody should call Bill Gates now and give them a heads-up; he isn’t going to live forever, and once he’s gone, simulator training for the military will be handled by the clowns who designed the Obamacare website. (One wonders but that they aren’t already slotted to take over all computer duties at the NSA any day now, after undoubtedly designing the security software for Target.)

  3. Bill K

    It’s sad that when companies die, hard-won knowledge seems also to be lost. When it comes to the defense of our nation, one would think that someone in the Defense Department would see the wisdom of taking measures to photograph production techniques, interview employees with unusual skills, and annotate the production methods, so that in case of future need, we wouldn’t be holding only the parts blueprints.
    Is that too much to ask?

    1. M. Lewis

      In another life, I worked for a very large defense contractor. The weapons system I was involved with was invented, developed and built by my employer and we were the single source supplier to the Navy. The congress, in its infinite wisdom demanded that a portion of the contract be given to a competitor, in order to create competition when the contract came up for renewal. The politicians hated single source suppliers. My company was required to give all the technical drawings, specifications, schematics, etc. to our competitor, not even a thank you given in return.

      The competing company was able to build a facsimile of the weapons system, but could never get it to work. The institutional knowledge, acquired from years of trouble shooting issues and developing processes on the production floor do not appear in blue prints, or wiring schematics. That knowledge was literally passed on from employee to employee at the engineering and production stages of assembly and test. The competing company whined quite loudly to the Navy that we were not providing them with all the documentation they required. Our response was that we were not required to build it for them, just provide the complete technical drawings and associated documentation.

      The end result was that a certain number of weapons systems were withheld from our contracts over several years and awarded to the competitor, even though they couldn’t get their system to work. The reduction in systems to build resulted in a painful period of lay-offs. The technical and production departments suffered, with talent leaving to other defense contractors. The entire division was eventually closed and the remnants were sold off to another contractor. Much of the institutional knowledge to build that system was scattered to the winds. It would have been a very long and difficult process to reconstitute that capability.

      Fortunately, in this case, the fall of the USSR was accelerating and the dismantling of the Navy was under way. It turned out that there was an excess of that particular weapons system, as ships were removed from the fleet. I do notice that it is still in use on our ships to this day, but I would guess they have just maintained the systems they had. I doubt any new systems have been built since the late 80’s, early 90’s. I would assume there have been upgrades to the system.

  4. Aesop

    What are you talking about?

    Subsidies for mohair and kapok from WWI & WWII in perpetuity aren’t enough for you?
    You want a wing of the national Archives to preserve forever the best way to construct Sopwith Camels and Bell AirCobras?

    As it is, it’s a wonder the 1st Cavalry Division wasn’t transferred to the National Guard, and made a horse-only unit for all time, while they transition the 101st back to delivery via air-towed Waco gliders.

    1. Bill K

      Well Aesop, consider me crazy, but if in the future, someone needed to build the De Luxe Sopwith Camel, mated to a 3D-printed plastic engine, so as to escape the radar of some powerful competitor, like the USSR, covering most of the EM spectrum with its radar, maybe those old cloth & bamboo techniques might actually have a future unforeseen use.
      Say, didn’t some nut do a stunt like that, landing in Red Square a number of years ago? Just sayin’. ;)

    2. Kirk

      Actually…

      I think you could make a damn good case that the 1st Cav was de-horsed a bit too early. A 1st Cav division with horses would have made a hell of a lot of sense in the Italian campaign, instead of trying to shoehorn trucks, tanks, and leg infantry into a theater that had an abysmal road network and a whole lot of mountains…

      There are times and places for various things we now consider obsolete. The bayonet keeps finding relevancy, despite the numerous times we’ve all said “It’s obsolete…”.

      I mean, who the hell knew the SF guys who went into Afghanistan were going to need to become muleskinners and horsemen?

      1. Hognose Post author

        SF has been training with pack animals and saddle horses on and off since the beginning (1952). The schoolhouse wrote a manual in the 1980s; it’s kicking around. The famous guys in Afghanistan just used horses provided by Abdurrashid Dostum (the horses were handed down to the successor team and were stabled in Konduz when I was there. The one that bit everybody died in 2003, the ODA who were there at the time insist of natural causes).

        There’s a good book on the Cavalry of WWII by a Polish cavalry general, Janusz Piekalkiewicz. He covers the use of cavalry in insurgencies and COIN pretty well.

        http://www.librarything.com/work/3525862

      2. Cannoneer No. 4

        1CD was dismounted primarily because shipping American horses to the South Pacific would have tied up too much sea lift. MacArthur could have mounted them on Australian Walers, but rounding them up, paying for them, and turning them in to trained mounts would have taken at least a year and the South Pacific was not particularly favorable for mounted combat. Patton knew horse cavalry would be useful in Tunisia and Italy, but 1CD was already in motion towards the South Pacific when the Task Organization and shipping schedules for the North African campaign was being written.

        2CD made it to North Africa, but being mostly Colored Troops they were detailed to stevedore and labor duty and never used as Cavalry. I don’t believe their mounts came over.

        One or two Texas National Guard Cavalry Regiments made it to New Caledonia, with their mounts, but found no useful employment there and were sent to India and turned in to muleskinners in Burma. They called them the MARS Task Force.

  5. DAN III

    Just buy aircraft from the Commie Chinese. Hell,we buy everything else from them. Doesn’t matter that no one has a job to buy the Chinese crap. We’ll keep importing it nevertheless. Hell, IFAKs have Commie Chinese bandages in them. US troops in Afghanistan are issued Russian Wolf and Tula 5.56mm ammo.

    The USA….it’s done.

    1. "Greg"

      US troops in Afghanistan issued Russian Wolf and Tula 5.56mm ammo??? (Maybe because so many civilians are buying such large quantities of domestic ammo? of course, not forgetting DHS purchases…)

      The USA… it’s done????

      What? Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it ain’t over now. ‘Cause when the goin’ gets tough . . . the tough get goin’! Who’s with me? (quoting John “Bluto” Blutarsky)

      M Lewis… are you referring to “gee whiz, I hope it works…”

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