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Contracts with foreign nations for the F/A-18 Hornet and EA-18G Growler program are vital to the mission of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, Capt. Frank Morley said. As program manager for NAVAIR’s PMA-265, his job is to ensure those contracts are procured.

“If we sneeze, the Navy’s going to catch a cold,” he joked last week at a program briefing at Patuxent River Naval Air Museum, where former program managers and members of the aviation and test communities gathered to learn more about the future of these no longer cutting-edge aircraft.

The selling point is the reliability of these aircraft, Morley said. And sales to foreign nations keep the costs of these aircraft affordable for the U.S. fleet.

“When you think about what it takes to get a weapons system through testing and into development, it’s not an easy process,” he explained. “It takes almost a generation to get something through ... and as consensus is gained we have to build support for that. We have to build funding to gain confidence within the service, Congress and government, and then once we obtain that we’ve got to make it happen.”

Private industry has to have the technical wherewithal and talent in order to build what has been selected for production, Morley said. “They’re going to have to go out and subcontract to hundreds of subcontractors in order for everyone to make a profit in some way, shape or form, and then to make it all come together in the end we’ve got to continue to battle to support that throughout the life of the program as it goes through its trials and tribulations through development and continue to battle and adjust with the budget. Then we have to actually build it, test it and field it. It’s just an amazing, complex process that we’re all a part of.”

The PMA-265 program office is responsible for acquiring, delivering and sustaining the F/A-18 C/D Hornet, F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler aircraft, according to the NAVAIR website. The program office also serves seven international customers: Australia, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland.

The F/A-18 Hornet became operational in 1983, replacing the Navy’s A-7 Corsair and the Marine Corps’ F-4 Phantom.

One of the Hornet’s biggest selling points, Morley said, is that it has been around long enough for the learning curve and cost to be relatively low while its capabilities remain high.

“We started out with a new airplane, the F/A-18 A, and from then on it was evolutionary,” he said. “We went on to develop the B, C and D models ... and then we continued to add on to that ... so what we were able to do is build the airplane and add the ‘toys’ in as we went along with further development. When we got to the point where that was pretty much maximized, the Super Hornet [E/F] concept came around.”

To date, Australia is the only foreign partner on the Super Hornet, Morley said, with that aircraft’s service scheduled to remain beyond 2035.

“Certainly we’re making a lot of efforts in the program now to see if we can get another foreign buyer on it,” Morley said of the Super Hornet. “It’s certainly worked wonderful for the F/A-18 with seven foreign partners on the A through D variants, and 75 percent of the upgrades we make today on A through D come from our foreign partners.

“That’s something we’d certainly like to develop further for the Super Hornet, and with us so close to shutting down this line of production, if we get a capability partner this year that will allow the U.S. some options” on the homefront, Morley said.

“I just tell our folks, whether we talk domestically or on foreign sales, we’re really the no-drama option,” he added. “If you invest in the Super Hornet you’re going to get one when you ask for one and it’s going to do what you want it to do.”

Morley said soon after the development of the Super Hornet it became apparent that there was a growing need to replace the Prowler, “so we thought why not take the best strike fighter we’ve got out there that’s mature, developed and that we know works and put it with the latest variant of airborne electronic attack system that’s in the Prowler today,” he said. “That was basically what the Growler was.”

The Growler is an electronic attack aircraft that combines the newly developed jamming capability upgrades of the EA-6B Prowler with the tactical versatility, advancements and capabilities of the Block II Super Hornet, Morley said.

“Some of these airplanes are not as old as some generally think,” he said, “and we have to continue to push that in our dealings with potential customers. ... That doesn’t mean that we won’t try to get the best deal for the government and drive costs down. If we don’t, we’re going to lose the money and the fleet is going to lose in the end. “