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Boeing's Growler Aircraft Unites Missouri's Congressional Delegation

Boeing Co.

To hear the region’s members of Congress tell it, their bipartisan effort to restore federal funding for Boeing’s Growler aircraft is fueled more by the plane’s unique capabilities than by the jobs at stake in the St. Louis area.

“I think we have a powerful story here,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “It is only this aircraft that can provide the electronic warfare that is so important today. It is the only aircraft that can do the jamming of radar that is so important to defend our assets.”

McCaskill kicked off a series of speakers -- including U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis – who praised the E/A-18G Growler before several hundred Boeing workers attending a rally Monday at Boeing’s campus next to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

The event’s official purpose was to celebrate the production of the 100th Growler, which is primarily used by the U.S. Navy.  But arguably the rally's real aim was to highlight the bipartisan congressional commitment to protect the plane – and Missouri’s 13,000 Boeing-related jobs.

There is no money for the Growler in the Obama administration’s proposed military budget for the federal fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.  Boeing and its congressional allies are seeking to get $2.1 billion into the budget for the 22 additional Growlers that the Navy has said that it needs.

If funding isn’t continued, Boeing has said it likely will have to shut down the production line in St. Louis, endangering the 13,000 jobs.

McCaskill and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., both sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is expected to take up the issue in the coming weeks.  McCaskill made a point during remarks of emphasizing that Blunt, who was not in attendance, shared her commitment to getting Growler money back in the federal budget.

Such bipartisan show of force is rare, particularly in Congress’ current highly polarized atmosphere.

Clay, meanwhile,  emphasized that he and Wagner are leading a drive to collect signatures from other House members in support of the Growler.  “Congressional support for the Growler is strong, bipartisan and growing by the day,’’ said Clay, whose district includes the Boeing campus.

Biggest rival: Lockheed Martin's F-35

Boeing’s effort also has been bolstered by recent news reports that the rival aircraft – Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II – also known as the “Joint Strike Fighter" – doesn’t appear to have communications-jamming capabilities that can match the Growler. The F-35 also is far more expensive, and has been beset with cost-overruns for years.

The Growler is the most advanced of a series of versions of the F/A-18 which was originally a McDonnell-Douglas aircraft that began production in the 1980s.  The plane’s capabilities have been revamped and improved over the decades. Its production was barely affected by McDonnell-Douglas' merger with Boeing in 1997.

Mike Gibbons, vice president of Boeing’s F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, said in an interview after the rally that the Growler’s assets cannot be overstated. “What the Growler does, that other aircraft cannot – including the F-35 – is to be able to identify any and all’’ electronic communications and radar and “to identify how to take them out,’’ Gibbons said.

For example, he pointed to special “jamming pods’’ that are installed on the outside of the aircraft. No other military plane has those devices, he said.

After the Boeing rally, Wagner announced that the House Armed Services Committee has decided to insert enough money in the defense authorization bill for five additional Growlers. Wagner called that decision “a small step in the right direction,” and then made a veiled slap at the F-35.

“Since the Growler will remain a required escort for nearly every combat mission now and through 2040, it’s imperative that we support this vital program and maintain our military readiness,” she said.

“As the mother of a soldier currently serving in the 101st Airborne, I want a Growler there in the combat theater to support the mission and return our troops home safely.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.