WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy included 12 Boeing Co F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets and eight Lockheed Martin Corp F-35s on a list of “unfunded priorities” prepared for Congress, defense officials and other sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The Navy’s list was reviewed by senior Pentagon officials and the Joint Chiefs of Staff this week, and should be sent to U.S. lawmakers in coming days, said the sources, who asked not to be named because the vetting is still under way.
Top Pentagon officials are skeptical about the weapons wish lists, and worry they help lawmakers “cherry pick” specific weapons programs to fund, while crowding out bigger priorities. However, they say they will not stand in the way of the military services complying with requests from lawmakers.
The total value of the additional 12 Boeing jets is around $1 billion, while the eight extra Lockheed jets would be just over $1 billion, the sources said.
A decision by Congress to fund the extra Boeing jets as part of the Navy’s fiscal 2016 budget would help the company extend its St. Louis production line beyond the end of 2017, although it was not immediately clear for how long.
Company officials have said they must decide this summer whether to start shutting down the line or bet their own money to buy titanium and other supplies that take a long time to deliver, before Congress finalize the 2016 budget.
There is great uncertainty about fiscal 2016 funding levels - and any programs on the “unfunded” list - since Congress remains deadlocked over whether to lift budget caps that would cut $35 billion from the Pentagon’s base budget plan.
The Navy had hoped to include the Boeing and Lockheed jets in its base budget request, but gave up that funding to protect shipbuilding programs deemed more critical.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert told Congress the Navy faces a possible shortfall of two to three squadrons of F/A-18 strike fighters, or up to 36 aircraft, given delays in extending the life of older model F/A-18 aircraft, also called legacy Hornets.
Ordering Super Hornets now would also preserve the option of ordering additional EA-18G electronic attack aircraft, or Growlers, which are built at the same facility, if needed by other military services.
Representative Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican and key member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Reuters this week that lawmakers needed the lists to better understand the tradeoffs that went into shaping the overall Pentagon budget.
Boeing has said it needs to build two jets a month at the facility to maintain current pricing, which means funding for a dozen more jets would extend production through mid-2018.
Analysts say the company is also chasing a possible order from Kuwait that could keep the factory running through the end of 2018.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Andre Grenon