NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., May 5 (Reuters) - Boeing Co (BA.N) expressed optimism on Tuesday that it would be able to sell more supersonic F/A-18 fighter jets to the U.S. government and other countries seeking to modernize their arsenals.
Boeing Vice President Bob Gower, who heads Boeing’s F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, told reporters the current world economic crisis could slow down or curtail some foreign orders, but several countries urgently needed to replace aging fighters.
Current plans call for the U.S. Navy to buy a combination of 89 more F/A-18E/F fighter jets and the EA-18 Growler variant with electronic attack capability over the next three years.
Ray Mabus, President Barack Obama’s nominee to become Navy secretary, last week said the plans called for 31 F/A-18 fighter purchases in fiscal 2010, 34 in 2011 and 24 in 2012.
Gower said Boeing remained optimistic that the U.S. Navy would eventually buy even more F/A-18s beyond those 89 aircraft, given Navy projections that the age of the current fleet and current plans for buying the F-35 fighter built by Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) will leave the U.S. military with a significant fighter shortfall in coming years.
“We’re the only platform that can fill that inventory shortfall,” Gower told reporters at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference, noting that the Pentagon had not announced plans to accelerate production of the Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Gower said the Obama administration’s fiscal 2010 budget, to be submitted to Congress on Thursday, was probably arriving too late to start work on another multiyear agreement, but said Boeing would continue to push for another a multiyear agreement from 2011 on. The current five-year deal ends in 2009.
Captain Mark Darrah, the Navy’s F/A-18 and EA-18 program manager, said the Navy remained pleased with Boeing’s performance on the program, noting it had delivered the latest fighter jets on cost and ahead of schedule. The jets also continued to perform well and required little maintenance.
He said there was a “clear shortfall” anticipated in the Navy’s fighter fleet, but decisions about exact purchase rates in coming years would be made during the Quadrennial Defense Review that is due to wrap up by late summer.
“We have to buy a certain number of things,” he said, underscoring that the F/A-18 would remain a critical part of the Navy’s aircraft fleet in coming years.
The Pentagon’s Program Analysis and Evaluation Office has told Congress that the Navy’s fighter shortfall is overstated given a range of capabilities offered by the Air Force, the military blog DoDBuzz.com reported on Tuesday, quoting congressional and senior Pentagon sources.
Gower said current work on hand ensured F/A-18 production through 2011, and orders for the 89 more expected to be ordered by the Navy would extend work on the line through 2014.
Boeing is also bidding for orders in India, Greece, Denmark, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Kuwait for the F/A-18.
Gower said India planned flight tests in its fighter jet competition this summer, and Brazil and Greece were expected to make decisions soon.
Boeing executives said they also see good international sales prospects for the company’s P-8A maritime patrol aircraft after signing deals with India and Australia.
“We anticipate an international market that rivals the size of the Navy market,” Bob Feldmann, program manager at Boeing, told reporters.
Boeing said the P-8A Poseidon test aircraft completed its first flight April 25, performing a series of flight checks, reaching a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet, and landed after three hours, 31 minutes in the air. (Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs, editing by Matthew Lewis)