Gates defends F-35, No increase in F/A-18s…F-35 general sacked by Pentagon…

Gates defends F-35, rejects increase in F/A-18s

By Andrea Shalal-Esa Andrea Shalal-esa – Wed Feb 3, 7:25 pm ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top Pentagon leaders on Wednesday underscored their commitment to the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter program and challenged some of the arguments Boeing Co is hoping could help it sell more of its F/A-18 fighters before production of the F-35 gets into full swing.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recent data showed that a multiyear contract for new Boeing F/A-18 fighters would save only 6.5 percent in procurement costs, far short of a 10 percent threshold for signing such long-term agreements.

Gates also said the Navy faced a shortfall of about only some 100 carrier-based aircraft in 2018 before the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 reached maximum production levels, far less than a shortfall of 243 planes often cited by Boeing backers.

Lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee repeatedly questioned Gates and the military’s top uniformed officer about the so-called strike fighter shortfall, arguing that the Pentagon should buy more of the older-model Boeing jets.

Boeing has lauded the performance of its F/A-18 fighters, arguing they could be a cheaper alternative to some of the F-35s the military plans to buy in coming years — at less risk since the plane has been in production for some time.

Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers the F/A-18 was “a great airplane,” but said the F-35 — at $300 billion the Pentagon’s largest weapons program ever — was “the right answer for the future.”

Gates and Mullen acknowledged that the F-35 program had run into some problems, but said a restructuring effort led by Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter would improve oversight and allow more time for testing before production of the new radar-evading fighters ramped up to higher levels.

Gates said the F-35 program office had been too optimistic in its estimates, but the fighter’s problems were not unlike those seen on other developmental aircraft.

“The reality is it’s a good airplane. It’s meeting the performance parameters,” he said.

Mullen said the Pentagon was still due to get its first training squadron of F-35s in 2011, with the Marine Corps slated to start using their first squadron in 2012, the Air Force in 2013 and the Navy in 2014.

Gates said the Navy was also developing strategies for dealing with its projected shortfall, including better aligning air wing readiness with carrier readiness and reducing the size of the Marine Corp’s F/A-18 squadrons.

Mullen told lawmakers that the Navy was also sharply increasing its purchases of an electronic attack version of the F/A-18, the EA-18G, calling that a “very positive step.”

He acknowledged Boeing’s concern about the end of the F/A-18 production line but said several foreign countries were actively considering the plane in their fighter competitions.

The increased capabilities of the new fifth-generation fighters like the F-35 also meant the Pentagon would not need to replace legacy aircraft on a one-to-one basis, Gates said.

In addition, new unmanned planes were accomplishing many missions previously handled by manned aircraft, Gates said, noting that eight unmanned Reapers could do the work of 36 F-16 fighters, and they were armed with the same weapons.

He said the U.S. military currently had about 2,245 combat aircraft, a number projected to drop to 1,864 by 2020. But that would be offset by planned increases in unmanned aircraft over the same period, leaving a gap of only some 40 planes.

He said it was also important for Congress to allow the U.S. Air Force to retire some of its oldest planes so it could find the money to buy new ones.

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