By Geoff Fein

The Navy is working to meet a Monday deadline to inform Congress of plans to pursue a multi-year buy of Boeing [BA] F/A-18E/F Super Hornets that could help to fill some of the service’s strike fighter gap, according to a lawmaker.

Under section 128 of the FY ’10 defense authorization bill, the Navy would need to obtain congressional authority to enter into a multi-year for the Super Hornet no later than March 1. At a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing yesterday, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told lawmakers the service is working to meet that deadline.

“We received a letter of intent from the contractor on Monday. We are working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense to make the notifications to meet the deadline,” Mabus said. “We are working hard to meet that deadline…[we have] very limited time.”

The Navy’s decision to move forward on procuring a multi-year for the Super Hornet was a hard fought victory, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), a HASC member, told Defense Daily yesterday after the hearing.

“We consider it to be a victory that we shouldn’t have even had as a campaign of any type,” Akin said. “It just seemed to be so amazingly self-evident, none of us could figure out. Democrats and Republicans are all on the same page on this.”

For its part, Boeing has offered a cost savings of 10 percent under a multi-year contract.

“Boeing is committed to delivering the advanced, combat-proven Block II Super Hornet and new EA-18G Growler to the U.S. Navy through the procurement option that offers the best value for our nation and its warfighters. We have provided the U.S. Navy with pricing information that enables cost savings of 10 percent under a multi-year contract,” Philip Carder, a company spokesman, told Defense Daily yesterday.

Akin said it shouldn’t have been such a difficult decision to take advantage of a discount on Super Hornet procurement. “One of the things that seemed fairly obvious was you’ve got to buy some aircraft even if you don’t fill the gap. There is a program of record, in fact, that they are going to be buying aircraft for another five years. Why not get a multi-year and get a discount on the price?”

Akin added that over the years the committee has received resistance from the Navy and Defense Department on pursuing a multi-year buy of F/A-18E/Fs.

“In fact, when the Secretary of Defense was before the committee a month ago he was still spouting the 6 percent [savings] and the fact it didn’t make any sense…” Akin said. “The numbers he was giving were all wrong.”

Earlier this month during testimony before the HASC, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told lawmakers the reason a multi-year procurement of F/A-18s through 2013 was not being pursued, even though it would generate an estimated cost savings of 6.5 percent, was that the savings fell short of the non-statutory threshold of 10 percent on multi-year contracts, according to a letter Akin sent to Gates on Feb. 12.

In his letter to Gates, Akin noted there were two errors with the secretary’s testimony: first, Congress had already provided the Navy conditional authority to enter into a multi-year for F/A-18s even if the 10 percent cost savings were not achieved. Secondly, the 6.5 percent cost savings Gates quoted is outdated. But even if the savings were no more than 6.5 percent on 89 aircraft, that would still save the Navy $315 million, Akin added.

“The 6 percent was not what came through yesterday,” Akin told Defense Daily. “When the letter came in, the contractor was offering 10 percent. But even if it is 6 percent, why wouldn’t you take 6 percent [savings] if you can get it, but in fact it is 10.”

While Akin acknowledges the number of Super Hornets the Navy ultimately buys in a multi-year may not satisfy the striker fighter gap, the Navy doesn’t have many options to deal with the shortfall. “Using the Navy’s own numbers, what are the alternatives?”

The first thing the Navy could do is either pretend there isn’t a fighter shortfall or acknowledge that they do have a shortfall and while they can’t fix it, the best way to mitigate it is to buy a bunch of new planes, Akin said.

“If they said that, I would say ‘OK they are making a trade-off between some planes and how many ships they need in the Navy and what they are going to do against the missile threats,” he said. “At least that would seem to be straight. It would be a decision that they are going to live with the risk.”

Another thing the Navy could do is upgrade some of the older Hornets to Super Hornets. But Akin pointed out that using the Navy’s own numbers, those upgrades would cost $25 million a plane. “You are getting the new airframe from Boeing for $50 million.”

“The additional life you are putting on an old airframe, if you do it by cost per air hour or whatever it is, you are talking probably seven times more expensive to rebuild the old one. Obviously, a new aircraft has a whole lot more capability,” he added.

The third alternative would be to buy some new planes, Akin said. “When I asked them that specific question today, they refused to answer the question: ‘would you even consider buying a new aircraft?'”

“Clearly it is one of their alternatives, and they are telling us ‘no, we won’t even consider that alternative,'” he added.