Boeing ‘Protecting’ St. Louis Fighter Jet Line: Executive

(REUTERS 07 APR 14) … Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON – Boeing Co. is self-funding procurement of some materials needed to keep producing EA-18G electronic attack planes for several months until the U.S. Congress signals whether it will fund 22 more jets in fiscal 2015, a company vice president said on Monday.

Boeing, the No. 2 U.S. arms maker, told reporters last year that it needed to decide in March whether to invest tens of millions of dollars to continue production of the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets and EA-18G Growlers, which otherwise will cease at the end of 2016 unless the company receives additional orders.

But Mike Gibbons, vice president of F/A-18 and EA-18G programs, told Reuters at a Navy League conference on Monday that the company had decided to “protect” the St. Louis production line for several more months until congressional plans become clearer.

Fighter jets need items like titanium that must be purchased well before production begins, which means Boeing might pay for those items on its own until firm orders come in. The company self-funded work on its C-17 transport plane for months at a time in recent years while Congress debated funding.

U.S. congressional committees that oversee arms programs and spending usually “mark up” legislation by June, which should give Boeing a better idea of whether lawmakers will fund the 22 additional planes, Gibbons said.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said the committee would work on the legislation that sets defense policy starting later this month and continuing through May 7. The other committees have not yet announced their markup schedules.

Boeing is lobbying Congress to add funding for 22 more planes to the U.S. Navy’s fiscal 2015 budget, which did not include the planes. Top Navy officials have told lawmakers the added planes would help the Navy keep up with growing demand for electronic attack capabilities.

Gibbons told reporters at the annual “Sea Air Space” symposium that Boeing forecast demand for 50 to 100 additional Growlers in coming years, given the growing importance of the electromagnetic spectrum as another warfighting domain in the age of cyberwarfare, along with air, sea, land and space.

Gibbons said only the EA-18G Growler could adapt and deal with evolving threats across the electromagnetic spectrum, while even stealthy fighter jets like the F-35 being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) would be vulnerable to detection by increasingly sophisticated enemy radars and sensors.

He said Boeing viewed the 22 jets being debated by Congress as a bridge to future orders of EA-18Gs as the U.S. military adjusts to the changing requirements of warfare.

The company is marketing an “Advanced Growler” that would have improved radars, infrared search and tracking pods, added fuel tanks to give it longer range, and next-generation jamming pods being designed by Raytheon Co (RTN.N).

In addition to electronic attack, he said the plane’s high-end sensors meant it could also be used to counter threats from the air or surface.

Captain Frank Morley, the Navy’s F/A-18 and EA-18G program manager, said the Growlers performed well in a large-scale military exercise last year, underscoring their performance in an increasingly challenging military environment.

“You could use a lot of them,” Morley told reporters at the conference.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Phil Berlowitz.

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