Gates rejects multiyear deal on Navy aircraft

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday shot down congressional efforts to enter into a multiyear commitment to buy more F/A-18 aircraft for the Navy, arguing that the deal would not save enough money to make it worthwhile.

During testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Gates estimated the multiyear deal would cut only 6.5 percent off the price of each of the Boeing Co. aircraft, far less than the 10 percent savings threshold that is customary for such long-term commitments.

The Navy's fiscal 2011 budget request, sent to Congress on Monday, includes $1.9 billion to buy 22 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet carrier-based fighter jets and $1.1 billion for 12 EA-18G Growlers, electronic attack aircraft built with the same airframe. In fiscal 2012, the Navy plans to buy 24 more Growlers and one Super Hornet, followed by 25 more Super Hornets in fiscal 2013.

After that, the Navy will focus its fighter procurement exclusively on F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which will ultimately replace the service's older F-18s.

Multiyear procurements "don't deliver unless you've got them out over many years. The question obviously, I think, for the F/A-18 is, when is the line going to end?" Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen said. "It's a great airplane. It's been a great airplane; we know that. But the JSF is the right answer for the future from a war-fighting perspective, from my perspective."

At the urging of the House Armed Services Committee, the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill includes language that allows the Navy to pursue a multiyear deal for F/A-18s. Senate authorizers, including Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., had voiced concerns that the deal would not save enough money.

Boeing has been pushing hard for the multiyear deal and has promoted it as a cost-effective way to address an impending shortfall in the Navy's fleet of strike fighters.

Indeed, the firm has given the Navy an unsolicited offer of 149 planes as part of a multiyear procurement at $49.9 million apiece. But the Navy plans to buy only 84 of the planes before shutting down production after fiscal 2013.

A Boeing spokesman did not immediately address Gates' comments on the multiyear deal but said in a statement that the Super Hornet and Growler programs "continue to perform as model defense acquisition programs, with every aircraft delivered on schedule and on budget."

Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee ranking member Todd Akin, R-Mo., whose district is near Boeing's defense headquarters in St. Louis, Wednesday raised concerns about the Navy's fighter shortfall, particularly as the Pentagon restructures the F-35 amid cost and schedule problems.

"You're talking about having 10 aircraft carriers, and I would submit they work better when you put airplanes on them," he said.

The size of the shortfall, which also affects the Marine Corps, ranges widely, with estimates reaching as high as 243 aircraft. Gates said on Wednesday he believes the shortfall is estimated at 100 airplanes, due in part to steps taken by the services to mitigate the problem.

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