Boeing may slow F/A-18 plane output to keep line going longer

Sun Mar 2, 2014 1:54pm EST
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By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Boeing Co is considering a slower build rate and other options to keep production of its EA-18G electronic attack planes running into 2017, and give Congress time to add more orders, a top company executive told Reuters in an interview.

The St. Louis production line for Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers is slated to shut down after 2016 unless the Pentagon's No. 2 supplier wins additional U.S. or foreign orders for the planes soon. The plant will build F-15 fighters through at least 2018, based on current orders.

U.S. Navy officials often laud the performance, on-time deliveries, and low operating cost of the Super Hornet and Growler aircraft, which fly from U.S. aircraft carriers.

But U.S. defense officials say the Pentagon's 2015 budget will not fund any more of the Boeing planes given competing budget demands and a growing focus on Lockheed Martin Corp's next-generation F-35 fighter, which has three models, including a carrier-based model for the Navy.

Boeing executives acknowledge the tough budget environment, but say detailed studies under way by the U.S. military reveal a need for more electronic attack aircraft given work by potential adversaries on new radar systems that could detect F-22 fighters and other stealthy planes like the F-35.

The EA-18G Growlers fly into battle with other warplanes, jamming, confusing and disrupting enemy radars. Other aircraft have some electronic capabilities, but Boeing says the Growler is the only plane that addresses the full spectrum of threats.

"Boeing is looking for creative ways to partner with the Navy, including lowering the rate to two aircraft per month, to keep the line running past 2016," Mike Gibbons, vice president of F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, said in a telephone interview late on Friday. Restarting the line later would be costly.

The company already plans to slow production to three jets a month from four, but scaling it back further to two jets could extend the production line through mid-2017, without substantially raising the price, he said.   Continued...

A F/A 18 E/F Super Hornet fighter jet is seen in its hanger during ceremonies celebrating the 35th anniversary of the F/A18 Hornet fighter jet at Naval Air Station Patuxent River Maryland December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron