By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy erroneouslyposted a notice about a possible order of up to 36 more BoeingCo F/A-18 fighter jets or EA-18G electronic attack planesdue to "pre-decisional and internal budget discussions," a topNavy admiral said Friday.
Vice Admiral David Dunaway, commander of Naval Air SystemsCommand, issued a statement after the Navy canceled the notice.It had sparked confusion since the Navy's current plans call forit to switch to the radar-evading F-35 built by Lockheed MartinCorp in coming years and do not foresee further F/A-18purchases after fiscal 2014.
"The posting was the result of pre-decisional and internalbudget discussions and was posted erroneously," Dunaway said ofthe incident, which triggered fresh questions about the Navy'stepid commitment to the $392 billion program - the Pentagon'slargest weapons program..
"We took immediate actions and retracted the solicitation,"said the admiral, who oversees the Navy's aviation programs. Hedid not address the Navy's position on the F-35 program.
The incident caught officials at the Pentagon's F-35 programoffice and elsewhere in the U.S. military by surprise, sincethere are no plans to buy more F/A-18s in fiscal 2015 andproduction of the planes is slated to end in 2016.
However, Boeing and its supporters in Congress have soughtto continue selling the Navy more of the company's F/A-18E/FSuper Hornets and EA-18G Growlers as a hedge in case the carriervariant of the F-35 fighter jet runs into further delays ortechnical challenges.
The C-model of the jet is the furthest behind in developmentof all three models being built by Lockheed.
The Navy posted the pre-solicitation notice on a federalprocurement website on Oct. 17, but it first became public thisweek after an article published by Flightglobal.com.
Navy officials initially said the notice was meant to ensurethat a "proper acquisition process" was in place if more U.S. orforeign orders emerged, but they said they had no plans to buymore Super Hornets or EA-18G Growlers in fiscal 2015.
Officials ultimately decided to rescind the notice sincethere is no U.S. or foreign military sales requirement for theBoeing jets in fiscal 2015, said one Navy official familiar withthe internal discussions.
"There is no program of record and no budget for theprocurement of additional aircraft," said the official. "Theoriginal notice was posted in error."
Several U.S. defense officials called the incident"embarrassing". One said notices posted on the federalprocurement website were generally vetted by four or moreindividuals before being posted.
The incident is particularly troubling to the U.S. MarineCorps, which is concerned that the Navy could undermine the F-35program. The Marines, which have an urgent need to replace theircurrent aging fleet, plan to start using the new F-35 B-models,which can land like a helicopter, from mid-2015, followed by theAir Force a year later.
The Navy will be the last U.S. military service to startusing the carrier variant of the F-35, the C-model, in 2019.
However, those dates could be delayed if Congress does notrescind sequestration and a further 10 percent cut in funding isimplemented in fiscal 2015. The Navy's plan for meeting thattarget calls for a two-year pause in F-35C orders, according tomultiple sources familiar with the proposal.
One industry source said the Navy's decision to cancel thenotice reflected the determination of senior Pentagon officialsto "protect the F-35 at all cost out of fear of internationalpartners walking away from their commitments".
The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, saidthe Pentagon was "destroying the industrial base by not allowingfor fair competition within the market".
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.
Unlike the other military services, the Navy's fleet offighter jets is relatively young, bolstered by repeatedincreases in F/A-18 and EA-18G procurement in recent years,including 44 added to the Navy budget by U.S. since 2007.
Pentagon and F-35 program officials have warned that anymoves by the Navy to postpone its purchases of F-35s would driveup the cost of the remaining planes to be bought by the AirForce, Marine Corps and U.S. allies.
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