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U.S. Marines air chief wants to curb 'big wish lists' for arms upgrades

F-35
F-35

By Andrea Shalal

RAF FAIRFORD England (Reuters) - The U.S. Marine Corps' new aviation chief this week said he plans to hold down "big wish lists" for upgrades to existing warplanes and helicopters so he can maximize purchases of new planes like the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet.

Lieutenant General Jon Davis, who took over as deputy commandant for aviation on July 1, is also looking for quick, innovative and inexpensive ideas on how to make each of the existing planes and helicopters more effective by ensuring they are able to share intelligence and data among themselves.

At the same time, Davis says Lockheed and other big suppliers - like the Boeing Co and Bell Helicopter team that builds the Marine Corps' V-22 tiltrotor aircraft - must work harder to drive down the cost of building, operating and maintaining those weapons.

"We have to do that with everything we own," Davis, who was the former deputy commander of U.S. Cyber Command, told Reuters in an interview during the Royal International Air Tattoo, the world's largest military air show. "I want more affordable products across the spectrum."

The Marine Corps is the smallest of the U.S. military services, but it will be the first to use the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in combat, beginning in July 2015.

Davis said he remains confident in the F-35 program despite an engine failure that has grounded the entire fleet and has thus far kept four jets from coming to Britain to fly in two high-profile air shows.

He said he welcomed a new cost-cutting plan called the "Blueprint for Affordability" that was announced by Lockheed and the Pentagon's F-35 program office on Thursday. He is eager to see the promised cost reductions and further gains in driving down the jet's operating costs.

"Like the CV-22, the F-35 is going to be a very, very desired platform from here on out," Davis said. "And it will be even more desired if more people can afford not only to buy it, but also to operate it."

Davis said it was critical to ensure the readiness of current forces, and he was preparing a "sensible plan" to improve the capabilities of existing aircraft. But he said it was important to avoid over-spending for those items given that many of the Marines' existing aircraft will be phased out from 2025 to 2030 as the F-35 comes on board.

"There’s a lot of big wish lists for all the stuff we want to do for warfighting upgrades, but I'm going to maximize the amount of resources into buying the tails (new aircraft)," he said. "I want to buy as many new aircraft and get them into the hands of the warfighter as I can,"

Davis said he hoped to infuse his new job with some of the enthusiasm and innovation he saw and fostered at Cyber Command.

He said he was determined to ensure that all Marine Corps aircraft - including helicopters and V-22s - could share high-fidelity digital data using the Link 16 system among themselves and with forces on the ground, a capability now held by the newest aircraft like F/A-18 Super Hornets and drones.

"Every aviation platform that's out there is a sensor," he said. "And if you see it, you have to be able to pass it."

Davis said the Marines were also experimenting with distributing electronic warfare capability among the various aircraft, and he also hoped to ensure that each of the aircraft had software-based radios.

"It might not be the 'Gucci' 100-percent integrated solution that everybody wants, but it's enough to get us talking."

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Larry King)

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