US Navy says notice of possible F/A-18 orders posted in error

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States Navy erroneously posted a notice about a possible order of up to 36 more Boeing Co F/A-18 fighter jets or EA-18G electronic attack planes due to "pre-decisional and internal budget discussions", a top Navy admiral said on Friday.

Vice-Admiral David Dunaway, commander of Naval Air Systems Command, issued a statement after the Navy cancelled the notice. It sparked confusion since the Navy's current plans call for it to switch to the radar-evading F-35 built by Lockheed Martin in coming years and do not foresee further F/A-18 purchases after fiscal 2014.

"The posting was the result of pre-decisional and internal budget discussions and was posted erroneously," Vice-Adm Dunaway said of the incident, which triggered fresh questions about the Navy's tepid commitment to the US$392 billion (S$487 billion) programme - the Pentagon's largest weapons programme. "We took immediate actions and retracted the solicitation." He did not address the Navy's position on the F-35 programme.

The incident caught officials at the Pentagon's F-35 programme office and elsewhere in the US military by surprise, since there are no plans to buy more F/A-18s in fiscal 2015 and production of the planes is slated to end in 2016. However, Boeing and its supporters in Congress have sought to continue selling the Navy more of the company's F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers as a hedge in case the carrier variant of the F-35 fighter jet runs into further delays or technical challenges. The C-model of the jet is the furthest behind in development of all three models being built by Lockheed.

The Navy posted the pre-solicitation notice on a federal procurement website on Oct 17, but it first became public this week after an article published by Navy officials initially said the notice was meant to ensure that a "proper acquisition process" was in place if more US or foreign orders emerged, but they said they had no plans to buy more Super Hornets or EA-18G Growlers in fiscal 2015.

Officials ultimately decided to rescind the notice since there is no US or foreign military sales requirement for the Boeing jets in fiscal 2015, said one Navy official familiar with the internal discussions.

"There is no programme of record and no budget for the procurement of additional aircraft," said the official. "The original notice was posted in error."