F/A-18 E/F manufacturer Boeing has until March to decide whether to put its own funding toward continuing production of the Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler aircraft without further U.S. Navy orders or face closure of the St. Louis line.

The company announced in September it would close its Long Beach, Calif., C-17 transport production line after years of intermittently relying on company funding to underwrite the work there while limping along on sporadic international orders.

Although the U.S. Navy—the largest buyer of the Super Hornet and Growler—has indicated an interest in procuring more, it has been noncommittal on a specific timeline. The company remains bullish on the program, though the last Super Hornet/Growlers on order are expected to roll off the production line in 2016; the supply chain has a roughly two-year cycle.

Mike Gibbons, vice president for the Super Hornet program, says Boeing is hoping to see an order in the fiscal year 2015 budget, expected to go to Congress in February.

“Boeing financially has the ability to keep this line going,” Gibbons told reporters following a ceremony here last week celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Hornet family of aircraft. The company has on-hand cash in part because of its uniquely diversified portfolio, which is split between military products and a robust backlog for commercial aircraft orders.

The manufacturer produces 48 Super Hornets and Growlers annually; its portion of the aircraft is a flyaway cost of $37 million, Gibbons says. This excludes the price of two General Electric engines and electric-warfare systems, both of which are government-furnished. He cites the total flyaway cost for a Super Hornet as roughly $50 million. The Growler—which includes jammers and specialized avionics for its role as an EA-6B Prowler replacement—costs about $9 million more per jet, he adds. The fiscal 2014 budget request, yet to be enacted by Congress, includes funding for enough aircraft to reduce that rate to 36 annually.

Boeing is responsible for roughly 80% of the cost of the Super Hornet and Growler.

Gibbons says the company has already studied how to further decrease production to 24 annually at a minimum rate while maintaining roughly the same price point. The program used lessons from the C-17, which reduced its production rate without increasing unit cost after U.S. Air Force interest waned, leaving only interest from some international customers to carry production. The company is protective of its manufacturing work—with the F-15 and F/A-18 limping along—and the C-17 factory set to close next year.

There is still international interest in the twin-engine Super Hornet from Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Malaysia, Kuwait and other unnamed Middle Eastern countries. However, a decision from these potential customers, which would provide confidence about future orders, is not expected in the near term.

The Navy has taken delivery of 490 of 563 planned Super Hornets and 90 of 135 planned Growlers, says Capt. Frank Morley, program director for the Navy, who spoke at the anniversary ceremony. Noting Australia's decision to buy another 12 Super Hornets on top of the 24 already ordered by Canberra as a gapfiller until the rival Lockheed Martin F-35 is ready, he said, “Hornet/Growler continues to be the 'no drama' option.”

The Navy is planning to declare initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35, which has suffered repeated cost increases and delays, in February 2019.

But the service is considering a purchase of conformal fuel tanks for at least some of its Growlers and Super Hornets.

Meanwhile, the Navy is continuing to work on a plan to restart procurement of a new, Next-Generation Jammer after BAE successfully protested the selection of Raytheon for the $279 million contract. That jammer eventually will be integrated onto the EA-18G. Northrop Grumman was also a losing bidder. Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis, Navy program executive officer for aviation, says the Navy still plans to maintain a 2020 IOC for the new jammer, despite the delay brought on by the protest.