ST. LOUIS COUNTY — The war in Ukraine could mean trouble for one of the region’s key assembly lines.
The Russian incursion is scrambling military priorities in Germany, the last foreign customer committed to buying Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. In a speech following the invasion, the German chancellor suggested his country could buy Lockheed Martin’s newer, stealthier F-35s and European planes instead.
And if that happens, it could leave Boeing, and thousands of workers here and across the country, in a bind.
Boeing’s best customer, the U.S. Navy, is already looking to curtail new Super Hornet purchases, a move that could leave the line without orders after 2024. The company has been banking on German orders of Super Hornets and Growlers, their electronic warfare variants, to fill the void.
“It’s a difficult spot to be in,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director of Aerodynamic Advisory.
Boeing downplayed the threat.
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“We fully support the German government’s decision to evaluate what they are procuring,” the company said in a statement. “We are confident that our offer of Super Hornet and Growler is unmatched in cost, capability and commitment to Germany.”
Analysts said the Ukrainian invasion could also push Congress to approve a long-delayed lifeline for the program from Washington.
And even if they’re wrong, it wouldn’t be the end of Boeing’s St. Louis operations. F-15 fighter jets, MQ-25 refueling drones, smart bombs, and the T-7 training jet are also built here.
But the Super Hornet would be a big loss. The plane remains one of the company’s most profitable products and an essential part of its efforts to build an all-important next-generation fighter for the Pentagon.
Introduced in the 1990s, it is an all-purpose naval workhorse, built to live on a carrier deck and handle any mission thrown at it, from dogfights and airstrikes to refueling planes midair. Over the past two decades or so, Congress has put more than $50 billion toward nearly 700 planes.
But in recent years, it’s been a tougher sell.
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.
It hasn’t been much sunnier overseas. The past quarter century has garnered just two foreign customers: Australia and Kuwait. And since the Texas-built F-35 became available, it’s been the clear favorite of American allies.
Germany bucked that trend two years ago, announcing plans to buy 30 Super Hornets and 15 Growler electronic attack jets to replace aging, European-made Panavia Tornados that can carry U.S. nuclear bombs.
But analysts say that was a political decision, not a knock on the F-35: Germany and France were working together on their own next-generation jet. France had made clear to Germany that buying the F-35 would torpedo the effort.
Since then, more and more Western allies have chosen the F-35, burnishing its claim to be the free world’s fighter. Germany installed a new leader, triggering a review of the Super Hornet buy.
And when new Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke to parliament Feb. 27 about countering Russia in Europe, he talked about F-35s and electronic attack Eurofighters, not Super Hornets and Growlers.
“There’s a feeling that the F/A-18 is on its way out,” said Bryan Clark, an analyst at the Hudson Institute.
Nothing’s for certain until there’s a contract, though. And even if Germany ditches the Super Hornets, the country may still buy the Growlers.
“Electronic attack is something they could use,” Clark said, “and European counterparts can’t match it.”
Super Hornets also remain under consideration in India. And back home, the invasion is pushing Congress toward approving a long-delayed defense budget directing the Navy to buy more planes over admirals’ objections, said Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But there are headwinds, too.
Those Growlers don’t have the same range as the F-35s they might be called upon to assist, Clark said.
Aboulafia, the AeroDynamic Advisory analyst, thinks French manufacturer Dassault may have the advantage in India because the country already flies some of the company’s planes.
And while Boeing has defied the odds on Capitol Hill for years, lobbying here isn’t getting any easier. Navy leaders have publicly opposed new Super Hornets, saying they don’t see any practical use for them past the 2030s. And if there’s no German order waiting in 2026, Boeing would have a harder time pitching a request as temporary help.
“They could say it’s a bridge order,” Aboulafia said. “But not what it’d be a bridge to.”