Navy seeks time to decide F/A-18 aircraft deal

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has asked Congress for another extension to consider a multiyear procurement deal for more F/A-18 aircraft, saying the Pentagon is still reviewing an offer from the prime contractor, Boeing Co.

Lawmakers last year gave the Defense Department the go-ahead to pursue a multiyear agreement to buy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters and E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft. But they set a March 1 deadline to tell Congress whether it will proceed with such a deal and gave officials until May 1 to sign the contract.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn then asked for, and received, an extension of the March 1 deadline, while the May 1 contract deadline remained unchanged.

In his April 30 letter to the chairmen of the congressional defense committees, Mabus said the Navy is "completing its fact finding and discussions to ascertain the ability to achieve substantial savings by way of multiyear procurement for the FY 2010 through 2013 aircraft."

Should the Defense Department elect to pursue the multiyear procurement, he said, the Navy plans to enter the contract by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

At a breakfast with reporters last month, Mabus said the Navy and the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office still are analyzing whether an offer proposed by Boeing in February will achieve the necessary savings to proceed with the multiyear deal.

"Ten percent [cost savings] is the nominal threshold that [Defense] Secretary [Bob] Gates has put forward as the target that we're shooting for," Mabus said. "Any more would be fine," he quipped.

Mabus, who said he expects a decision from Defense in the next few weeks, has said he would support the multiyear if it would achieve the cost savings.

A multiyear commitment would cover the 124 Super Hornets and Growlers the Pentagon plans to buy between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2013, which is 35 aircraft more than was planned a year ago. The planes are based on the same Boeing airframe.

The latest request for an extension prompted House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee ranking member Todd Akin, R-Mo., to criticize senior defense officials for "dragging their feet."

"Delaying a multiyear procurement of F/A-18s's for the second time concerns me greatly," said Akin, whose district is near Boeing's St. Louis defense headquarters. "The Navy and Boeing have had plenty of time to negotiate -- it is time for the Secretary of Defense to make this deal happen."

The Navy's fiscal 2011 budget request, sent to Congress Feb. 1, includes $1.9 billion to buy 22 Super Hornets and $1.1 billion for 12 Growlers. In fiscal 2012, the Navy plans to buy 24 more Growlers and one Super Hornet, with 25 more Super Hornets in fiscal 2013.

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