How Boeing Is Positioning Itself For Advanced Fighter Competitions
FARNBOROUGH—Boeing’s fighter business has a hot production line with a backlog of orders to churn out, but there is a problem approaching: the original fighter designs are old and production will sunset soon.
The company is turning out new F-15s, but that aircraft is set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its first flight next week, and the original design of the F/A-18 is not far behind. Even though the company has not been a prime on fifth-generation fighters or stealth bombers, company officials say the design of advanced combat aircraft is in their DNA and its secretive Phantom Works is primed with technological advancements that put it in a place to pick up new work.
“It is important business to us,” Boeing Defense CEO Ted Colbert told reporters before the Farnborough International Airshow. “We have a Phantom Works organization that does today and will continue to invest in the future of fighters. That’s facilities, that’s people, that’s technology, that’s all of the things we talk about from a model-based engineering perspective on platforms we talk about today. They are a part of that set of investments. So you know, we haven’t given up the fight in that space. We’re continuing to invest in it.”
Boeing is presumably in the mix for the U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform, which Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told lawmakers earlier this year has entered the engineering and manufacturing development phase. But neither Kendall nor a series of Boeing officials would elaborate on anything NGAD-related when asked at Farnborough. The U.S. Navy is similarly planning its next-generation fighter.
“Fighters are in our DNA, right,” says Rik Geiersbach, Boeing Defense’s vice president for strategy. “So there was a competition 20-plus years ago for F-35. We did not stop investing in future fighter capabilities then, we don’t stop investing in future capabilities now. So the fact that there are needs that are relative to future capabilities, you can rest assured that we are right in the middle of all of that.”
Though he would not comment on NGAD, Steve Parker, Boeing’s vice president and general manager of bombers and fighters, says the company is “fully supportive” of where the Air Force is going.
“We’ve been in the fighter game for a long time, and many people wrote us off not so long ago,” Parker told reporters at the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 15. “We have relooked at our strategy and we have changed the way we design, the way we build, the technology that we’re bringing in and we’re really looking at 10 to 15 years plus in terms of where we think the threat is going to go.”
Examples of this work have included digital engineering tools for the new F-15EX, with redesigns of the wing-forward fuselage, the nose barrel, a powerful advanced radar and defense system, and other classified systems that will keep the aircraft relevant for the next 20 to 30 years. The company is upgrading Block II F/A-18s to a new Block III configuration with more advanced cockpit and communication systems. Boeing emphasizes digital design and advanced manufacturing for its T-7A Red Hawk trainer. And although Lockheed Martin was the prime, Boeing also designed the avionics and performed other work on the fifth-generation F-22.
“We are right in there. In some areas we are leading the way in some of the technologies that we’re developing and producing,” Parker says. “Looking at Boeing as not being in the stealth game would be shortsighted.”
At Farnborough, Geiersbach provided a view of Boeing’s overall defense strategy, examining a 10-year outlook of about $2.8 trillion that includes “modest growth” as a result of tensions increasing abroad. Much of the market growth consists of spending on advanced systems, including next-generation strike, hypersonics and space. Overall, about 41% of the market is “addressable by Boeing,” he says. Eighty percent of the market is made up by the 10 top nations.
The tensions in Europe are linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has brought “renewed interest” in weapons systems, situational awareness and heavy lift. The war shows “the world’s not always a safe place, and I think the world’s sort of awakening to that,” Geiersbach says.