By Andrea Shalal-Esa
DUBAI Nov 19 The U.S. Navy remains committed to
the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)
program, but is also looking at options to buy additional Boeing
Co F/A-18 fighter jets, a senior U.S. Navy official said
Richard Gilpin, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for
air programs, told Reuters at the Dubai Airshow that the Navy's
current plans still called for purchases of the Boeing F/A-18
and EA-18G electronic attack planes to end in fiscal 2014.
He said the U.S. military would have to act soon to ensure
continued production of the F/A-18 beyond 2016, but said no
decisions had been made at this point. U.S. officials are also
meeting with possible buyers at the show, in hopes of cementing
orders that could extend the production line.
Gilpin, and Navy Captain Frank Morley, who heads the F/A-18
and EA-18G program, both denied that the discussions signalled
any wavering of the Navy's commitment to the F-35 program - and
underscored that the two fighter jets were always intended to
operate together for decades to come.
"Let me be clear. The Navy is very committed to moving to
JSF. I wouldn't want you to get the impression that the Navy is
not committed to JSF, because we are," Gilpin said in an
interview at the air show.
The $392 billion F-35 JSF, the Pentagon's biggest arms
program, has seen a 70 percent increase in costs over initial
estimates and repeated schedule delays, but U.S. officials say
the program has made progress in recent years.
Questions arose about the Navy's F-35 program last month
after it erroneously posted a notice on a federal procurement
website about a possible order of up to 36 more F/A-18 fighters
or EA-18G electronic attack planes in fiscal 2015.
The Navy has also mapped out plans for a two-year halt in
procurement of the F-35 C-model if U.S. lawmakers fail to
reverse tough mandatory cuts in military spending - a move seen
by some industry executives as a sign of the Navy's lukewarm
support of the multi-service F-35 fighter program.
Morley told reporters at the air show that the notice was
mistakenly posted by "a fairly low level contracting person",
but he took full responsibility for what he called "an
administrative error" and said new procedures had been put in
place to prevent any future incidents.
Gilpin said the erroneous posting did not reflect any
concrete Navy plan. He said it stemmed from one of many
scenarios being developed while Navy officials wait for guidance
on how to structure their budget in fiscal 2015.
For instance, he said Navy officials were looking at the
cost trade-offs of buying newer model F/A-18s to replace older
model jets, and whether that could save maintenance costs.
But he stressed that there had been no change in the Navy's
plan to stop buying the planes in fiscal 2014.
"The simple reality check is that ... they end in 2014.
There's lots of conversations going on, but until there's a real
budget commitment, that's where we are," he said.
"If people come to us with good ideas, we look at them to
see if there's a place where they can fit, but right now there's
been no change in the program of record," he said.
Top Boeing executives on Monday said they saw a good chance
of winning additional U.S. and foreign orders that would keep
the F/A-18 production line running expected, and were committed
to continuing to invest in the program.
Gilpin said a budget-driven pause in procurement of the
Navy's F-35 C-model would not derail the program, although it
could potentially increase the cost of each airplane.
He said the Navy continued to work with Lockheed on driving
down the cost of the airplanes, and was "on a good path there".
Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning on Monday told a
meeting in Washington the Air Force's worst-case budget plan
foresaw delaying work up to 24 F-35 A-models over the next five
years if sequestration budget cuts remained in effect.
He said a detailed analysis showed the Navy's plan to
postpone orders for up to 30 C-model jets would impact the cost
of the Air Force model less than expected. But he said all the
U.S. changes could affect the cost of planes to be purchased by
the foreign partners on the program.
Gilpin said U.S. officials were meeting with potential
foreign buyers of the F/A-18 at the air show, but the timing of
any possible purchases was unclear.
"If others are interested, the timing is now," Gilpin said,
noting that Boeing would have to make decisions soon about
buying long-lead materials or components for future jets.
Morley said Qatar was getting close to a decision on its
next fighter purchases, and Kuwait had also showed strong
interest. The United Arab Emirates had been more focused on
other fighter jets in recent months, he added.