Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, in Germany for a NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea last week, told Reuters he was frustrated by delays in approving the sale of the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet jets to a close U.S. ally. His concern also raises the possibility that a delay could affect the cost of jets the U.S. Navy still wants to buy.
This in not the first time the Secretary has spoken out against the interminable delay for foreign military sales. Back in January, Mabus had this to say about the snails pace of foreign military sales development:
“It’s a frustrating process for all parties involved and it speaks to the need to do something about the whole [export control] process,” the SECNAV said to reporters after his remarks to the Surface Navy Association conference.
“I don’t think that there’s been any particular slowdown with this [Super Hornet] program. [There’s] just the long torturous process you’ve got to go through to do any of this, to do any international sale, whether to an ally or not.”
The Kuwait deal is for 28 F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters, with an option for 12 more. The total value of the deal is expected to be around $3 billion. One issue that might be holding up the process is what to do with Kuwait’s current inventory of F-18’s. Kuwait currently flies the F-18C Legacy model Hornet and would likely want to trade those used models in for some level of remuneration. Finding a capable and willing buyer might prove to be a challenge.
The Super Hornet deal was agreed to in part back in May of 2015, but has been sitting in limbo for more than a year waiting on final White House approval. Concerns that the delay in ultimate approval could reach into the next Administration (whoever that may be) have many officials worried on both sides.
From a national policy concern, the delay is curiously to a known ally in the Middle East region. However, it must be assumed that the current Administration’s hesitation is in part because of the recent nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States (and allies).
Tipping the balance of military power in the Middle East region after such a landmark nuclear deal is achieved is a careful balancing act. The Obama Administration would likely want to preserve its traction with the nuclear deal first. Thus, any type of major foreign military sale in the region would be delayed as long as possible.
Boeing said production of two aircraft per month, or 24 per year, is necessary to keep the production line at the break-even point. The Kuwait deal would go a long way to ensuring the production line meets its necessary quota to remain open. However, dropping below optimal production rates could affect future pricing of already budgeted US Navy fighters to be purchased.
One thing is clear: with the current delay of the F-35 putting even more of a strain on the Navy’s F-18 fleet, serious consideration will need to be given to every opportunity that maintains an open production line until the strike fighter gap can be fixed.