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New Growler construction may depend on upcoming Navy exercise

An EA-18G Growler is stopped by an arresting gear wire after landing aboard the forward deployed Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

WASHINGTON — The Navy will conduct a battle exercise off the West Coast next month that could help determine whether another 22 more EA-18G Growler aircraft will be built at a Boeing factory in St. Louis.

The Navy’s Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group will conduct three days of exercises to see whether seven or eight Growlers on an aircraft carrier — rather than the five currently assigned — would provide better support for attacks from fighter jets and ground forces. A Navy vice admiral said that paper analysis indicated the higher number was more effective and that exercises off the Carl Vinson would be conducted to verify it.

The test will involve eight Growlers on the aircraft carrier, said Cmds. Kevin Stephens, a public affairs officer for the Navy in San Diego.

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, who is trying to drum up congressional support for funding of 22 more Growlers, says thousands of jobs and dozens of suppliers in Missouri are tied to the construction of the plane, which in five years will be the Pentagon’s primary weapons system designed to block and disrupt enemy electronics, in conjunction with other U.S. land and air forces.

A spokesman for Boeing, which builds the plane, said that although Boeing does not break down jobs related to planes, about 14,500 people work at the Boeing plant that builds the Growler.

The Navy currently has 138 Growlers in its fleet or under construction, and the 22 extra would be used to boost its capability to work jointly with other branches of the military.

Under pressure to cut the future Defense Department budget in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and large federal deficits, President Barack Obama did not include the $2.1 billion price tag for the new planes in his 2015 budget. The Navy has put the additional 22 Growlers on its “unfunded priorities” list, and Wagner and Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, have rounded up roughly 50 supporters — equally split between Democrats and Republicans — to add funding for the plane.

In addition, Wagner has scheduled a meeting next Wednesday with Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to urge that funding for new construction be added to future Pentagon budgets.

“I come at this first and foremost from a military readiness standpoint, and a national security standpoint in the defense of the nation, but I also look at the economic impact to the area that I represent,” Wagner said.

Clay said recently that he was “very optimistic, especially since the Navy has also weighed in and said they would like 22 more Growlers so they could have more coverage on their aircraft carriers.”

Other members of the Missouri and Illinois delegations have weighed in to support more Growler funding. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a former Naval intelligence officer, toured the Boeing plant in St. Louis last week and said he supported further funding as a necessary move in “maintaining our technological edge.”

But funding is not a certainty. The Pentagon is under heavy pressure to adhere to cuts in future spending plans mandated by a 2013 congressional budget agreement.

“Some in Congress are proposing that we’ll procure more EA-18G Growler electronic warfare, aircraft but it comes with a very high price and the Navy may not need more of these aircraft if it ends up eliminating an aircraft carrier and an associated wing, for example,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., the second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said last month.

Navy Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee this month that the Navy is trying to determine whether to ask for the additional 22 aircraft, based on future needs, because Boeing was nearing the “end of the production line” of the planes already approved.

Grosklags, who is the head of research, development and acquisitions for the Navy, said a study last year showed that “the ability to increase the number of aircraft in one of our carrier air wings deployed on the carrier from five to seven represents a significant improvement in capability not only in defending the carrier, but also supporting our strike packages as they go forward over the beach.”

After the upcoming carrier exercise testing of the coordination and performance of eight Growlers on the Carl Vinson, the results will be combined with the “paper analysis,” and the Navy “will see if the two line up,” Grosklags said.

“Ideally, they will, and then we’ll have to come back to Congress and have that discussion” about future funding, he said.

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