Senator considers buying more fighter jets for Navy

By Megan Scully

June 23, 2009

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said on Monday he does not back congressional efforts to add more F-22 Raptor fighter jets or C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes to the Air Force's arsenal, but left the door open to buying more fighter jets for the Navy.

Levin's panel will mark up its version of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill in secret sessions starting on Tuesday. He said in an interview he might support buying more of the aircraft carrier-based F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

Boeing Co., the plane's manufacturer, has been lobbying to expand the Super Hornet fleet. It sees an expansion as a way to mitigate the effects of a shortfall in strike-fighters within the Navy that is expected to peak in 2017 at 69 aircraft and continue until 2025, when the service's F-35 Joint Strike Fighters become fully operational.

In its fiscal 2010 budget request, the Navy requested nine Super Hornets and 22 EA-18 Growler electronic attack aircraft, which are based on the same Boeing airframe.

Pentagon and Navy officials have said those aircraft are adequate to keep Boeing's production lines open in the event the Pentagon decides to buy more F/A-18s in the future.

The Navy's multiyear procurement deal for Super Hornets expires this year. The service has long planned to buy 89 Super Hornets over the next three years through the traditional procurement process, although the Pentagon this year did not send any details on future budget projections to Capitol Hill with its annual request.

But Boeing has given the Navy an unsolicited offer to sell 149 aircraft at $49.9 million apiece through another multiyear procurement -- a 7 percent to 10 percent cost savings per aircraft. A multiyear agreement would allow the Navy to sign a long-term contract for a fixed price, providing stability for Boeing and reduced prices for the Navy.

It was unclear whether Levin would back another multiyear purchase, but his potential support for more Super Hornets could give the aircraft's supporters on the committee the fuel they need to secure funding for more planes.

The House Armed Services Committee's version of the authorization bill, which will head to the floor as early as Wednesday, gives the Navy the authority to pursue another multiyear deal for the Super Hornets.

It authorizes $108 million in advanced procurement funding for future F/A-18s, essentially providing a down payment for planes procured after next year.

The House bill also includes an amendment authorizing $369 million for advance procurement of 12 F-22s in fiscal 2011, essentially reversing the Pentagon's decision to end production of the aircraft with the four Raptors in the pending fiscal 2009 supplemental spending bill. The House committee approved that amendment last week by a one-vote margin.

Levin said he expects the Lockheed Martin Corp. fighter jet to be an issue before his panel this week, but added he would not support any effort to add funding to the Senate bill to buy more F-22s.

The House bill does not include funding for more C-17s. Levin, who does not want to boost the size of that fleet, said he likewise expects the issue at least to come up during the markup.

By Megan Scully

June 23, 2009