By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy on Thursdaycanceled a notice about a possible order of up to 36 more BoeingCo F/A-18 fighter jets or EA-18G electronic warfareplanes after the posting on a federal procurement websitesparked confusion this week.
The pre-solicitation notice, which first became public thisweek, had triggered renewed questions about the Navy'scommitment to the $392 billion radar-evading F-35 Joint StrikeFighter program by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Boeing has sought for years to sell the Navy more of itsF/A-18E/F Super Hornets for use on aircraft carriers, as a hedgein case the more capable carrier variant of the F-35 fighter jetruns into further delays or technical challenges.
Navy officials this week said they had no plans to buy moreSuper Hornets or EA-18G Growlers in fiscal 2015 despite thenotice on a federal procurement website. They said the noticewas meant to ensure the "proper acquisition process" was inplace if more U.S. or foreign orders materialized.
But the posting caught Pentagon officials by surprise, sincethe current Navy budget calls for F/A-18 funding to end infiscal 2014, with production of the planes to end in 2016.
It was not immediately clear why Naval Air Systems Command,or Navair, decided to cancel the notice, which was first postedOct. 17. The procurement website was updated on Thursday to saythe notice had been canceled, but no explanation was provided.
Officials with Navair, which oversees aviation programs suchas the F/A-18, could not be reached for comment.
One U.S. official said the episode underscored the Navy'stepid commitment to the single-engine F-35 and the continuingattachment of many naval aviators to the Super Hornet, which hastwo engines.
"There is a desire at pretty significant levels in the Navyto keep the Super Hornet line alive," said the source, who wasnot authorized to speak publicly.
Lockheed is developing three models of the new warplane forthe U.S. military and eight partner countries: Britain, Canada,Turkey, Italy, Norway, Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands.Israel and Japan have also placed orders.
The U.S. Marine Corps will be first service to start usingthe new radar-evading warplanes from mid-2015. The Air Forcewill follow a year later.
The Navy will be the last U.S. military service to startusing its F-35 variant in 2019.
YOUNG FIGHTER FLEET
Unlike the other services, the Navy's current fleet offighter jets is relatively young, bolstered by repeatedincreases in F/A-18 and EA-18G procurement in recent years,including many planes added to the Navy budget by lawmakers.
That fact has prompted debate about postponing the Navy'spurchases of F-35s, but F-35 program officials and seniorPentagon leaders say that would drive up the cost of theremaining planes to be bought by the Air Force, Marine Corps andU.S. allies.
Boeing officials had no comment on the Navy's latest move.
The Chicago-based company is keen to sell the Navy and U.S.allies more F/A-18s to extend the life of its production line.It is pitching the Navy a range of upgrades for the SuperHornet, including an improved engine and fuel tanks that arehard to detect by enemy radar.
Boeing had hoped to land a big contract for F/A-18 fightersfrom Brazil, which would have extended the production line, butthat order faltered after reports that the U.S. NationalSecurity Agency had spied on Brazil's president.
Boeing's F/A-18 is also short-listed in Malaysia'scompetition to replace 18 Russian-made MIG-29s, but MalaysianPrime Minister Najib Razak told Reuters on Thursday that thecountry's decision could be delayed by budget pressures.
U.S. defense officials say declining military budgets willforce tough choices about weapons programs in coming years.
"Boeing argues that this country should have more than onefighter manufacturer, but the truth of the matter is we can'tafford to have two fighter lines," said one U.S. official whowas not authorized to speak publicly.
Boeing's F-15 fighter jet is now slated to end production in2018 after completion of a large Saudi Arabian order.
Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall told Reuters inSeptember that he did not expect the U.S. Navy to significantlychange its plans to buy F-35 fighter jets despite mountingbudget pressures.
He said the Navy needed the added capabilities that the F-35offered since other countries were developing their ownradar-evading fighter planes, advanced electronic warfarecapabilities and other advanced weapons.
"The F/A-18 is a great airplane, but it's a fourthgeneration fighter. The F-15 is a great airplane, the F-16 is agood airplane, but they're fourth generational fighters, and youget a quantum improvement in capability out of the F-35,"Kendall said.
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