Stinging defeat: Boeing’s Super Hornet loses key foreign fighter competitions The business news you need

ST. LOUIS COUNTY — One of the region’s most important assembly lines got another piece of bad news Friday.

The Finnish government decided against buying Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornets to refresh its jet fighter fleet, mirroring a similar decision last month by the government of Canada. Once again, Lockheed Martin’s newer, stealthier F-35 prevailed. And once again, Boeing and thousands of workers north of St. Louis Lambert International Airport and across the country are in a bind.

The company’s best customer, the U.S. Navy, is looking to curtail new Super Hornet purchases after more than two decades, leaving a gap between current orders and those to come. Contracts with Finland and Canada would have solved the problem. Now, the company will likely have to turn to a gridlocked Congress for help.

“It’s a good time to be a lobbyist at Boeing,” said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and executive with the Lexington Institute. “Maybe not so good a time to be an engineer.”

People are also reading…

A representative for Boeing said the company was “disappointed” by the losses but remains confident in its planes’ future.

“We have significant international interest we are pursuing,” the company said, “and we are continuing to invest in technologies that will ensure the U.S. Navy and international partners meet their mission need.”

The Super Hornet is Boeing’s all-purpose naval workhorse, built to live on a carrier deck and handle any mission thrown at it, from dogfights and airstrikes to acting as a fuel tanker. It’s also been a big winner in local aviation history: Since it entered production more than two decades ago, Congress has allocated roughly $50 billion for nearly 700 planes. But that may be coming to an end.

Navy officials are increasingly insisting on putting more of their limited resources into developing their next-generation fighter, and they’ve been looking for money in the Super Hornet program.

Things haven’t looked much sunnier overseas. The past quarter century has garnered just two foreign customers: Australia and Kuwait. Germany has announced its intent to follow, but even if it does, production on that program won’t start until 2026 — two years after the last American order is scheduled to roll off the line.

The company had hoped to change its luck with Canada and Finland, countries looking to replace St. Louis-made McDonnell Douglas Hornets procured decades ago. Boeing promised Canada it would partner with local companies to build and support new planes, a deal it said would deliver 61 billion Canadian dollars in economic impact and 250,000 jobs. It also touted opportunities for local industry in Finland and pointed out that the Super Hornet could reuse much of the infrastructure built for the old Hornet.

But the pitches fell flat. Canada picked Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and Saab’s Gripen to go to the final round of its competition, to be decided next year. And Finland named the F-35 its winner outright.

Industry observers weren’t surprised. Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group, said Boeing poisoned the well in Canada in 2017 when it accused the country of illegally subsidizing one of its competitors in the commercial airliner business.

“That was a self-inflicted wound,” he said.

In Finland, Boeing just got beat. The F-35 offered opportunities for local industry, too. Boeing’s pitch of the Super Hornet as low-cost plane fell flat: The Finns said it wasn’t significantly cheaper than any other plane. And they said the F-35 had another advantage: It was the best tactical aircraft on offer.

Stinging defeat: Boeing’s Super Hornet loses key foreign fighter competitions The business news you need

“The capabilities in combat, reconnaissance and survival are unsurpassed,” the defense ministry said in a statement.

The company isn’t taking the defeats lying down. It continues to pursue a deal with India. There may also be help coming from Washington.

A national defense policy bill hammered out on Capitol Hill this week recommended buying 12 new Super Hornets — up from the Pentagon’s request of zero. If that recommendation becomes a line item in a budget bill, it would take care of about a third of the production gap between existing Navy orders and German planes, a Boeing spokesman said.

The company is also planning to lobby for more planes on top of that. With the Navy reducing the number of existing Super Hornets going through Boeing’s refurbishment program, the company could argue new planes are necessary to address an ongoing fighter shortage.

If that doesn’t work, Boeing could slow down new production, as it has in the past with the F-15, to keep the line moving until the German orders come in.

There are headwinds, though.

With India, French manufacturer Dassault may have a better bid, said Aboulafia, the Teal Group analyst. Thompson, the defense industry consultant, said all bets are off if the U.S. clears the country for the F-35.

And in Washington, the Navy is pushing back. Future lobbying efforts will have to address public statements by top commanders who say they don’t see any practical use for new planes past the 2030s — even though a plane coming off the line in 2025 would be built to fly through 2050.

The German order isn’t a lock yet, either. Boeing got its initial commitment from an outgoing leader, and analysts said a new one could change their mind, rendering stopgap aid from Congress moot.

“If Germany doesn’t follow through, it’s a bridge to nowhere,” Aboulafia said.

Boeing reportedly out of the running for Canadian fighter jet contract

If confirmed, the decision would represent a blow to Boeing operations in St. Louis, where the F/A-18 is assembled.

‘Boeing needs a bridge’: Planemaker looks abroad to keep Super Hornet line rolling

Boeing is desperate to develop new fighters, a competition pitting the nation's aerospace giants in a race to the next generation of aerial warfare.

In another blow to Boeing, Finland picks Lockheed’s F-35 to replace aging F/A-18s

Lockheed Martin competed for the deal with Boeing, Sweden’s Saab, France’s Dassault and Britain’s BAE Systems.

Congress boosts funding for Boeing-made F-15EX and F/A-18E/F fighters

The fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, authorizes nearly $770 billion in spending.



Get the latest local business news delivered FREE to your inbox weekly.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Austin Huguelet

Austin Huguelet is the Post-Dispatch's retail business reporter. He's previously covered Missouri politics for the Springfield News-Leader.

Get email notifications on {{subject}} daily!

Your notification has been saved. There was a problem saving your notification.


Email notifications are only sent once a day, and only if there are new matching items.

Manage followed notifications

Followed notifications

Please log in to use this feature

Log In Don't have an account? Sign Up Today