May 20 (UPI) -- Boeing was awarded a $163.9 million one-year contract to continue modernizing the U.S. Navy's F/A-18E/F fighter jet fleet under the service life modification program.
The contract is to extend the operational service life of up to 10 Super Hornet fighter jets from 6,000 flight hours to an extended service life of 10,000 flight hours, the Defense Department announced Friday.
No funds will be obligated at the time of award as they will be obligated on individual orders as they are issued, and the contract includes an option for a second year in 2020.
The work will be split between facilities in St. Louis and San Antonio.
Upgrades have been done mostly at the St. Louis facility, and Boeing said its new San Antonio production line will start work on its first aircraft in June. The new line is expected to handle 23 upgrades during the course of the new contract.
"The service life modification program is making great strides as we've already inducted seven Super Hornets into the program, and will deliver the first jet back to the Navy later this year," Dave Sallenbach, Boeing program director, said in a company news release. "This program is crucial in helping the Navy with its readiness challenges, and will continue to grow each year with the number of jets we induct."
In the early 2020s, Boeing plans to begin converting existing Block II Super Hornets to a new Block III configuration. The conversion will include enhanced network capability, longer range with conformal fuel tanks, an advanced cockpit system, signature improvements and an enhanced communication system.
The U.S. Navy fleet consists of more than 550 Super Hornets.
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which made its first flight in November 1995, is a low-observable aircraft that performs day and night missions with precision-guided weapons, fighter escort and close air support, according to Boeing.
The E model of the aircraft is a single seat, and F model is a two-seater.
The F/A-18E/F is 25 percent larger than the original Hornet that entered service in 1983. It was built by McDonnell Douglas, which was acquired by Boeing.
"The last 20 years have been a bit of a roller coaster ride for Boeing in St. Louis," Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank on security issues, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year. "But at the moment, the coaster seems to be going up with a fair bit of momentum."
In addition to work on the F/A-18G Growler, which is an electronic aircraft version of the two-seater, at Boeing's plant just north of St. Louis Lambert International Airport, the company has seen increased work there for F/A-18s.
The aircraft was expected to enter a period of phase out in favor of Lockheed Martin's fifth generation F-35 stealth fighter, but Congress, as well as President Donald Trump, have continued to push them.
Production at the plant in St. Louis increased in 2018, when Trump requested another two dozen fighters for this year, on top of the 24 already included in the budget. Beyond this year, the U.S. Navy has said it wants to buy 86 more between now and 2023.
"The future for Super Hornet wasn't always that bright," Dan Gillian, vice president of Boeing's F/A-18, told the Post-Dispatch. "Now we feel very good, very confident. We are building more airplanes, bringing on more capabilities. It's a growing program. We are excited about where we are going with Super Hornet."