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Pressure Builds for More Hornets; Multi-Year OK Likely

Congressional pressure on the Pentagon to buy more F/A-18 E/Fs and use multi-year authority continues to build, with Sen. Kit Bond being the latest to leap on the bandwagon at today's Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing.

Bond sent a St. Patrick's Day letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging use of the multi-year authority and he pressed the Navy's top leaders on the need for more Hornets. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the Navy believes Boeing's February proposal for a multi-year deal meets the "threshold" for multi-year savings. The numbers are being reviewed by the Office of Secretary of Defense's CAPE and Mabus told me a decision should be forthcoming in a few weeks, "sometime in April."

The debate is sure to grow more heated with the news last week that the Navy and Marines were forced to red stripe -- ground -- 104 Hornets of models A through D. While it isn't clear yet whether some of these planes will be pulled off the line there are already flight restrictions on the fleet of older Hornets. And that, a congressional aide noted, means the service life extension programs being considered for the Hornet may have to be scaled back.

The congressional aide, who follows the Hornet debate, said there are "No specifics on how many will be permanently grounded. Inspections ongoing. The big concern is that even after the visual inspection, there are still G limits on the planes until they get electronically inspected. This red stripe certainly raises questions about the Navy trying to SLEP legacy Hornets to 10,000 flight hours. There are all kinds of holes in the Navy’s plan to reduce the strike fighter shortfall. You can expect to hear more about it in the near future."

However, Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, told reporters after today's hearing that very few -- half a dozen -- of the grounded planes have shown serious cracks that warrant concern. The grounding, he said, is actually giving the Navy the chance to do more detailed inspections earlier than it had planned. And it should not deter the planned SLEP, he claimed.

The other big story of the hearing was the Navy's careful efforts to fend off attacks on the Littoral Combat Ship's request for proposal. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, where the aluminum-hulled trimaran LCS is built, criticized the Navy for not taking life cycle costs into consideration and urged Mabus and Roughead to "amend" the RFP.

"A lot of us are concerned that the pending RFP does not appear to take capability and life cycle costs into consideration," Shelby said.

Mabus deflected Shelby, saying the Navy "has a lot of confidence in this RFP. It's well written and well designed." Asked by a reporter about the chances for a bid protest and how the Navy might handle one, Roughead said "a protest would be extraordinarily disruptive" to the service.

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