* Lawmaker expects Pentagon to try to kill program
* General Dynamics program projected at $13.2 billion
* Pentagon says no decision to terminate (Adds Defense Department comment, background)
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, June 8 (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee said he expects the Pentagon to try to kill a projected $13.2 billion General Dynamics Corp (GD.N) landing-craft program for the U.S. Marine Corps in a fresh round of budget belt-tightening.
“I judge that’s correct,” Representative Ike Skelton said on Tuesday, referring to signs that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will recommend ending the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program.
Canceling a big-ticket U.S. arms program typically entails a drawn-out fight complicated by vested interests, competing threat perceptions and job-related skirmishes among other issues. Congress has the final say.
The Defense Department, in response to Skelton’s remarks, said there had been no decision to terminate the EFV program but stopped short of quashing doubt sown by Gates’ repeated public questioning of its relevance to 21st-century shore defenses.
The department is drawing up its fiscal 2012 budget request over the coming months, said Cheryl Irwin, a Pentagon spokeswoman. She declined to be more specific.
Skelton, at a breakfast with reporters, hesitated when asked whether he would back any Pentagon move to terminate the program.
“There will be further discussion” of its fate, he said, “if not this year, next year.”
The Marines are adamant about preserving the nearly 40-ton, tracked EFV. It would send 17 combat-ready Marines and a three-strong crew from sea to shore in the tradition of amphibious battles the Corps has fought for more than 200 years. It aims to buy 573 for a projected total of $13.2 billion.
“So long as we operate in an anti-access world, we need the EFV’s capability,” said Major Carl Redding, a spokesman for the Corps, using shorthand for ever-more effective shore defenses such as anti-ship missiles.
Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway said in April 2009 that the EFV is “an absolutely critical requirement for us.” He spoke after Gates first called into question any need to launch another major amphibious landing amid advancing anti-ship missile capabilities.
Since then, the defense secretary has sealed the fate of other multibillion-dollar programs such as Lockheed Martin Corp’s (LMT.N) F-22 fighter jet and an $87 billion Army ground vehicle effort led by Boeing Co (BA.N).
Last month, Gates cited the EFV as one of two examples of weapons — the other being aircraft carriers — that reflect “a gap we risk creating between the capabilities we are pursuing and those that are actually needed in the real world of tomorrow.”
“Considering that, the (Defense) department must continually adjust its future plans as the strategic environment evolves,” he said in a speech on May 3, a day before the Marines rolled out the latest EFV prototype.
General Dynamics cautioned against any Pentagon rush to axe the amphibious vehicle.
“The testing and performance of these systems by Marines over the next 18 months will provide data essential for an informed decision on the program’s future,” Pete Keating, a company spokesman, said by email.
The EFV program originated two decades ago to replace a 1970s-era Assault Amphibious Vehicle that would be more than 40 years old when the EFV is due to start initial operations in 2016.
Typically, it would be launched 25 miles off shore, permitting the fleet to operate “over the horizon,” where it theoretically would be less vulnerable to cruise missiles and other enemy fire.
However, the Congressional Research Service has pointed out that Hezbollah militants struck an Israeli ship in 2006 with a missile that has a range of 75 miles. (Reporting by Jim Wolf, editing by John Wallace and Tim Dobbyn)