By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy would add two Boeing Co EA-18G Growler electronic attack fighters to each five-plane squadron on its aircraft carriers, if Congress will fund its request of $2.1 billion for 22 more of the aircraft.
Rear Admiral Michael Manazir, director of the Navy's air warfare division, said on Wednesday the Navy decided to put the additional Growlers on an "unfunded priorities" list requested by Congress after classified studies showed the planes would improve the effectiveness of the overall 44-plane strike group on a carrier.
Manazir said the Navy saw this as a good opportunity to increase its capabilities given that Congress had already provided the Navy with $75 million in advanced procurement for 22 planes, on top of the 138 Growlers already delivered or on order.
The Navy's campaign planning showed that adding two of the powerful electronic attack planes would reduce the duration of a military mission and bolster the effectiveness of the "fight coming from the carrier," Manazir said. He said the extra planes could also be used for "expeditionary" missions.
Boeing has been urging the Navy to order more EA-18G planes to ensure the continued operation of its St. Louis production line, which is now slated to close after 2016.
Boeing officials argue that the planes will complement the capabilities of the Lockheed Martin Corp next-generation F-35 that is also being built for the carrier.
But some critics worry that further spending on the Boeing planes now could undermine the Navy's ability and desire to fund the 260 F-35 carrier variants it is slated to buy.
Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert told reporters earlier this month that the Navy added the Boeing planes to the unfunded priority list given increasing concerns about the growing ability of potential enemies to detect U.S. warplanes.
The Navy did not include funding for Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets or EA-18G Growlers in its fiscal 2015 budget or a separate "growth" fund established by the White House. It remains unclear if Congress will fund the extra planes, given many other competing funding priorities.
Asked if there could be additional Growler purchases beyond the 22 planes, Manazir said that question would be answered during studies under way that are looking at what future capabilities the U.S. military needs to ensure that fighter jets can safely enter enemy territory.
Growlers jam enemy radars and other equipment so fighter jets can carry out their attack missions safely.
He said adding the Navy's next-generation jammer, now being developed by Raytheon Co, to the Growlers would give the planes the ability to assure access for U.S. fighters to enemy airspace for years to come.
"The combination of the Growler and the next-generation jammer will outmatch anything that's flying," he said. "The CNO has talked about domination of the electromagnetic spectrum. That's why this is a critical capability."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)