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Boeing sees F/A-18 fighter line continuing through 2017

By Andrea Shalal

LONDON (Reuters) - Boeing Co said on Sunday it was optimistic it could maintain production of its F/A-18 and EA-18G fighter jets in St. Louis through the end of 2017 - a year longer than expected - if Congress approved additional orders of a dozen more planes.

But the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, told reporters that slowing production to extend the line was likely to increase costs at a time when budgets were already tight.

"I don’t see how we can do that without it costing money and we just don't have money to spend on things that aren’t core requirements right now," Kendall said at a separate briefing.

Chris Chadwick, president and chief executive of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said the company was in discussions with the U.S. Navy about revamping the production schedule for jets already ordered, but added no decisions had been made.

Chadwick said action by several congressional committees to add funding for 12 more EA-18G electronic attack fighters or Growlers "looked very positive" and should allow the company to keep the production line running a year longer than expected.

"I think that will allow us to stretch the line out ... through the end of 2017," Chadwick told reporters at the company's London office ahead of the Farnborough air show.

Boeing, seeking to stave off a shutdown of the St. Louis production line, has been lobbying U.S. lawmakers to add funding for additional EA-18G aircraft, arguing the planes offer the most sophisticated electronic attack capabilities available.

The company has previously said it needed to build at least two airplanes a month at the facility to keep rates economical.

"We’ll find a way to stretch the line in an appropriate fashion to get through 2017," Chadwick said. "We have to look at what we have in the pipeline, what gets added to it, and how you might be able to spread those (orders) over multiple years."

Kendall told reporters that he understood Boeing's interest in keeping production running, but said it was clear that the F/A-18 and EA-18G line would have to shut down eventually.

"We are not going to be buying the F/A-18 indefinitely," Kendall said. "We’re going to stop buying them... and doing uneconomic things to prolong that process is not in the interest of the department."

Boeing is also chasing international orders for the F/A-18 Super Hornet, but Chadwick stopped short of saying any particular order was imminent.

"There is some interest. We're looking at competing in a number of areas," he said.

Later this year, the U.S. Navy plans to test the possibility of using seven EA-18G Growlers on an aircraft carrier instead of the five currently used.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Potter)

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