By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy on Tuesday underscored its desire to buy more Boeing Co F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in coming years to deal with higher-than-expected operational demands and past delays in the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet program.
Rear Admiral Michael Manazir, director of air warfare for the U.S. chief of naval operations, told lawmakers that the Navy was working to speed up maintenance of older-model F/A-18s, but would also need to buy more new F/A-18E/F jets to avert a shortfall in strike fighters for its aircraft carriers.
Manazir, testifying before the readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, echoed a call earlier this year by former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who said the Navy would need two to three more squadrons of Super Hornets, or 24 to 36 more aircraft, to meet its needs.
U.S. lawmakers are poised to approve the purchase of 12 F/A-18E/Fs in fiscal 2016, which began Oct. 1.
Manazir said problems could be avoided if the Navy bought more Super Hornets in both fiscal 2017 and 2018, and was able to start using an initial squadron of F-35 fighter jets as now planned in August 2018.
F-35 delays forced the Navy several years ago to extend the service life of its older F/A-18C Hornets from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours, a project that turned out to be more intensive and take much longer than expected.
Manazir's comments spell good news for Boeing, which needs more F/A-18E/F orders to extend its St. Louis production line beyond the end of 2017, when it is currently slated to end.
Manazir said it would not make sense for the Navy to accelerate its purchases of F-35 C-model jets instead since work had not been completed on the required Block 3F software needed for the jets to carry all the weapons required by the Navy.
Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley reassured lawmakers that the F-35C aircraft the Navy is buying in fiscal 2016 would be delivered in 2018 with the needed software package.
Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher said it was premature to comment on Manazir's comments since the Pentagon is still finalizing its fiscal 2017 budget plans.
If Congress finalizes the order of 12 jets in fiscal 2016, the Boeing F/A-18 production line will extend through mid-2018, while an expected order of 28 more jets from Kuwait could push production out until 2019 or beyond.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Leslie Adler)