Navy's F-35 planes remain highest priority despite budget cuts: Pentagon

WASHINGTON Wed Sep 4, 2013 7:54pm EDT

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall speaks at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit in Washington, September 4, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall speaks at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit in Washington, September 4, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon's chief arms buyer on Wednesday said he did not expect the U.S. Navy to significantly change its plans to buy F-35 fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), despite mounting pressure on the U.S. military budget.

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit that the $392 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was the U.S. military's highest priority conventional warfare program.

"I don't see any indication that the Navy is going to change its plans in any fundamental way," Kendall told the summit, highlighting the need to seek out more advanced equipment.

The Navy and other branches of the military have been going through tough budget reviews to map out their options if lawmakers fail to reverse mandatory budget cuts and they are forced to implement an additional 10 percent budget cut in fiscal 2015.

One of the options under discussion has been a two-year pause in orders for the F-35C carrier variant, a move that could increase the cost of the remaining aircraft to be bought by the Marine Corps and the Air Force, according to four sources familiar with the issue.

Kendall declined comment on the fiscal 2015 budget deliberations, but said he did not expect major changes in the Navy's plans for the F-35 program.

Kendall's strong endorsement of the added capabilities of the F-35 marked a setback for Boeing Co (BA.N), which is offering the Navy upgrades of its F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter in the hopes that it can sell more those planes.

"The F/A-18 is a great airplane, but it's a fourth generation fighter. The F-15 is a great airplane, the F-16 is a good airplane, but they're fourth generational fighters, and you get a quantum improvement in capability out of the F-35," Kendall said. "It's why we're buying them."

He said the Navy needed the added capabilities that the F-35 offered, noting that other countries were developing their own radar-evading fighter planes, advanced electronic warfare capabilities and other advanced weapons that threatened the U.S. military's ability to "control the air."

"That's a serious problem and it applies to a carrier strike group just as much as it does to an aircraft air wing or a marine amphibious group," he said.

Lockheed is building three variants of the F-35 for the U.S. military and the eight partner countries that are helping fund its development: Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Denmark and the Netherlands. Israel and Japan have also placed orders for the new jet.

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(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Ros Krasny and Lisa Shumaker)

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