Pentagon asks for more time on Super Hornet contract deal

The Pentagon is asking the defense committees for an almost five-month extension of the deadline to notify Congress of a new multiyear contract with Boeing Co. for the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets.

The Pentagon’s deadline to inform lawmakers whether it would agree to sign a third multiyear contract with Boeing was May 1. Now Pentagon officials are seeking an extension to Sept. 30. This is the second time Pentagon leaders are asking for more time to make a decision.

The negotiations with Boeing have been taking place at the highest levels of the Pentagon where leaders want to squeeze the best price and savings out of Boeing for the Navy and Marine Corps fighter jets. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has indicated in congressional hearings that he wanted to see savings of at least 10 percent for the long-term commitment.  

Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who represents the St. Louis district where Boeing builds the Super Hornets, on Saturday expressed disappointment and urged Defense Secretary Robert Gates to make a speedy decision.

“Senior leadership in the DoD is once again dragging their feet on a solution that is good for taxpayers and good for the Navy. Delaying a multiyear procurement of F/A-18’s for the second time concerns me greatly,” Akin said in a statement. “The Navy and Boeing have had plenty of time to negotiate -- it is time for the Secretary of Defense to make this deal happen.

Akin was instrumental in granting the Navy the authority to enter a multiyear contract for the jets as part of the 2010 defense authorization act. Akin has stressed in recent weeks that a multiyear contract could save about $500 million.

Boeing and its congressional supporters have been pressing for a long-term contract for several years. The idea is to save money on the planes by offering the contractor the predictability of production and deliveries over four to five years. Boeing made an offer for a multiyear contract to build 124 F/A-18 series aircraft, which include the Super Hornet fighter jets and their electronic attack versions, the Growlers.

Congressional supporters also aim to stave off a shortfall of fighter jets on the decks of the Navy’s carriers. The shortfall, expected to peak in 2016-2017, has been a matter of debate between Congress and the Pentagon for several years.

That debate is fresh on lawmakers’ minds. Pentagon leaders recently restructured the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program that would build next-generation fighters for the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. Lawmakers fear this could lead to delays in the delivery of the F-35 to the Navy and Marine Corps.

The F-35 is supposed to replace the older versions of the F-18. Super Hornets, the newest version of the F-18, are supposed to share carrier deck space with the F-35 until 2030.

Gates and other Pentagon officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, are standing strongly by the F-35 as the next-generation fighter aircraft.