(Adds additional Navy comments, Boeing response)
By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy on Thursday opened the door to further purchases of Boeing Co F/A-18 fighter jets and EA-18G fighter jets, saying it may ask lawmakers to finance the planes as part of a list of “unfunded priorities” to be sent to Congress.
More orders would help Boeing extend its St. Louis F/A-18 production line beyond 2017, but congressional aides and defense officials said it remained unclear if Congress would ultimately fund more jets at a time when it has yet to reach agreement about removing budget caps that are due to resume in 2016.
“It’s still very much on the fence,” said one defense official when asked about the likelihood of continued orders for the popular Boeing warplanes.
Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert told reporters after a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense that the Navy was weighing “a whole host” of items for the wish lists that help guide lawmakers as they decide whether to add items to the Pentagon’s base budget.
He said the Navy faced possible fighter jet shortfalls on its aircraft carriers next decade when most older model F/A-18s will be retired but the Navy will still be buying newer F-35 fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told reporters the Navy was mindful that the Boeing line would end without further orders, but stopped short of saying he would endorse a request for more jets.
He said Navy officials were working with Boeing to set the pace of production of 15 EA-18G electronic attack jets added to the fiscal 2015 budget by Congress, and would try to assist Boeing as it sought possible foreign orders for the jets.
The Navy is also starting to work with Boeing on refurbishing existing jets to improve the current availability rate of the aircraft, which has sunk to around 50 percent, he said.
Boeing spokeswoman Caroline Hutcheson said the company was looking at several possible foreign orders and working through “multiple scenarios” to extend production into 2018 and beyond.
The company is vying with Lockheed’s F-35 for orders from Denmark and Canada, and has been pursuing a possible F/A-18 order from Kuwait for production of jets in 2018.
Greenert told the committee the Navy had enough EA-18G electronic attack jets after Congress funded 15 more of the planes in fiscal 2015, but he said a Pentagon-wide study could result in possible additional sales to other military services. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Alan Crosby)