By Emelie Rutherford

The Pentagon “continues to explore” entering into a multi-year contract with Boeing [BA] for F/A-18 fighter jets, but was not able to make a decision by yesterday’s congressional deadline, according to the deputy defense secretary

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus indicated last week to the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) that his service may be poised to enter into a multi-year F/A-18 procurement deal. He said the Navy was “working hard” to meet a deadline of yesterday, spelled out in the FY ’10 defense authorization act, to seek congressional authority from defense authorizers to enter into such a contract (Defense Daily, Feb. 25).

However, lawmakers received a letter from Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn yesterday saying the Defense Department needs more time to evaluate an offer from Boeing.

In the letter to leaders of the congressional defense panels dated Feb. 26, Lynn said Pentagon officials “have received a viable offer from the prime contractor for a commitment on the pricing of a multi-year procurement only within the last few days.”

“This did not allow the (Defense) Department to properly evaluate the offer within the various timelines set forth in statute,” Lynn wrote. “We would like to take the time to perform such an evaluation. If we conclude that it would be useful to pursue a multi-year procurement, we will work with the Congress on how to best move forward.”

Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the HASC’s Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee whose district includes F/A-18 facilities, called yesterday for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to move forward with the multi-year contract.

“While I am encouraged that it seems the Navy sees the fiscal wisdom of entering into a multi-year contract for F/A-18s, I am concerned that this may also represent foot- dragging by the senior civilian leadership of (the Department of Defense) DoD,” Akin said in a statement. “This deadline has been in place since last fall and should have been fairly easy to meet.”

The Pentagon had already missed a deadline set by appropriators in the FY ’10 defense appropriations act to report to them on F/A-18 multi-year plans.

Akin and congressional aides had argued Gates cited incorrect facts about such a multi-year before the HASC on Feb. 3.

Gates at the time said the Pentagon did not pursue an F/A-18 multi-year deal through 2013 because it would generate an estimated savings of 6.5 percent, below a desired 10 percent threshold for such contracts.

Yet Akin and others argued the 6.5 percent savings figure appeared to be based on old plans calling for buying 89 F/A-18s, instead of the Pentagon’s FY ’11 budget proposal to buy 124 of the aircraft over the next five years, and thus the 10 percent savings would be achieved.

Boeing has offered the Navy a multi-year contract that reflects a 10 percent savings, according to the company and service.

Akin charged it would be “irresponsible to squander” this offer, noting the 10 percent savings over four years could represent $500 million. He said the “only thing preventing taxpayers and the Navy from saving a half a billion dollars or more is the Secretary of Defense and his staff.”

Supporters of a F/A-18 mutli-year claim the deal could help fill a strike-fighter gap the Navy is projected to experience before the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is available.

The Pentagon currently plans to buy 124 F/A-18s through Fiscal Year 2013.