Panel fattens Navy order for F/A-18 fighter jets

The House Armed Services Committee late Wednesday added eight F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft carrier-based fighter jets to the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill shortly before the panel unanimously approved the measure, 59-0.

The $760 billion defense bill, which sets Pentagon policy and prescribes military spending levels, is expected on the House floor next Thursday, making it one of the last possible orders of business before members depart for the week-long Memorial Day recess.

The additional Super Hornets had been expected to spark a dispute that pitted the amendment's sponsor, Seapower Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., against fellow Missourian, Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo. Boeing Co. builds the planes in St. Louis, just outside Akin's district.

But Akin and Skelton negotiated changes to the amendment before it came up at the markup and ultimately included it in an en bloc package of noncontroversial amendments.

The amendment came just days after the Pentagon notified Congress that it will proceed with a multiyear procurement deal with Boeing Co. to buy 124 F/A-18 aircraft between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2013.

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 E/A-18G Growlers, electronic attack aircraft that use the same airframe. The multiyear deal, according to the Pentagon, would save 10 percent on the cost of each plane, for a total savings over the next four years of $590 million.

The total cost for the additional planes, including associated government equipment and spare parts, comes to $630.5 million.

The amendment worked out between Akin and Skelton would pay for the fighters through $130.5 million in expected savings generated by the multiyear aircraft contract in fiscal 2011. The rest of the money to buy the fighters, $500 million, would be offset by a reduction in an overseas contingency operation transfer fund, which essentially provides the Pentagon a cushion to cover unexpected war-related expenses.

Akin said his amendment will help fill a looming shortfall of Navy strike fighters, which officials estimate will ultimately reach 100 aircraft and continue until the carrier-based version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter becomes fully operational.

The F/A-18 "is a tremendous aircraft both from an engineering, production perspective, as well as in theater as a proven combat fighter," Akin said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates Thursday expressed concerns with the committee's bill, particularly its addition of $465 million for an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and conditions placed on the fighter program that he believes would make it "unexecutable."

The bill, among other restrictions, allows the Pentagon to obligate only enough funding to buy 30 of the 42 F-35 aircraft in the fiscal 2011 request until it meets projections for specific program milestones and objectives.

Gates, who has said the second engine is unnecessary, reiterated his threat to recommend a veto of the bill if it funds the alternate engine. He said he would also recommend President Obama veto the bill if any policies "seriously disrupt" the fighter program.

The defense bill approved by the committee authorizes $567 billion for the Defense Department's base budget and the Energy Department's national security programs in fiscal 2011 and $159 billion for military operations overseas in fiscal 2011. The measure also authorizes $34 billion for the rest of the current fiscal year to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military response to the earthquake in Haiti.

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