By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy remains committed to its plans to buy the carrier-based variant of Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet and declare it ready for initial combat use by 2018, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michelle Howard said on Tuesday.
Howard said there was no doubt the Navy would need tactical and strike aircraft based on aircraft carriers, and it was counting on the F-35 Lightning II to carry out that mission.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said earlier this month that the next fighter after the F-35 would likely rely less on speed and stealth than current aircraft, saying "stealth may be overrated."
His remarks revived lingering questions about the Navy's commitment to the $400 billion F-35 program, especially given its continued support for Boeing Co's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and its electronic attack variant, the EA-18G, which are both due to end production after 2017.
"We do intend to pursue Lightning II. Absolutely," Howard told a conference hosted by the New America Foundation and the Arizona State University’s Center on the Future of War.
Navy officials considered funding additional F/A-18s and EA-18G Growler electronic attack planes in their fiscal 2016 budget request, but ultimately opted not to do so.
In fiscal 2015, the Navy skipped funding the Boeing planes in its base budget request, but added 22 EA-18Gs jets to a list of "unfunded priorities" it provided to Congress, which ultimately funded 15 EA-18G Growlers.
It remains unclear if the military services will send such lists to Congress this year, given the fact that the entire Pentagon budget was $34 billion above the congressional budget caps due to resume in fiscal 2016.
Asked if the Navy would add more Growlers to its "unfunded priorities" list this year, Howard told reporters after the conference the issue was still being considered.
"We're working our way through it," she said.
Howard noted that Defense Secretary Ash Carter told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing he was not opposed to the practice, but said it was not clear if such lists would be provided by any of the military services this year.
Industry executives and military officials say it may be tough to justify the traditional wish lists this year, given that the proposed budget already exceeds the budget caps.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal. Editing by Andre Grenon)