By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said he expects to complete work this week on a list of "unfunded priorities" for Congress that may include some Boeing Co F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets.
The Navy's top uniformed officer told Reuters he expected to finalize the annual wish list for U.S. lawmakers this week so it can be reviewed by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Greenert said the Navy faces a possible shortfall of two to three squadrons of strike fighters, or up to 36 airplanes, on aircraft carriers in the 2020s, given how long it is taking to service older F/A-18 aircraft, also called legacy Hornets.
He said the number of Boeing jets added to the list would factor in the Navy's other modernization needs and its decision to postpone orders for F-35 fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin Corp, as well the economical production rate for the Boeing jets, and any potential international orders.
The Navy had sought to fund additional Boeing F/A-18E/F fighter jets in its fiscal 2016 base budget, which already exceeds mandatory budget caps due to resume next year, but ultimately decided to focus more resources on shipbuilding.
Greenert told Reuters after a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that it was easier to add aircraft to the annual unfunded priorities list than ships. Losing funding for a ship also had graver consequences for the workforce, he said.
But he conceded that deferring funding for the jets added risk to the Navy's outlook and for the production line.
"Both of us are gambling here, us on the makeup of the air wing, and Boeing on keeping the line going," he said.
The service "wish lists" help lawmakers shape the Pentagon budget. But it remained unclear if Congress will fund even the Obama administration's proposed defense budget, or retain caps due to resume for fiscal 2016.
Greenert told reporters the Navy would have a better estimate of the projected shortfall in about 15 months after more work had been done on the legacy Hornets.
"If they can be extended, it really suppresses the problem, if they can't be extended, it exacerbates the problem," he said.
The Navy ultimately plans to operate two squadrons of both F-35s and F/A-18E/Fs on each carrier, along with EA-18G electronic attack jets.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Chris Reese and David Gregorio)