(Adds details of F-35 program, Pentagon cost-cutting, other background)
By Mike Stone
March 30 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s Air Force secretary nominee, Heather Wilson, told U.S. senators on Thursday that other jets lacked the stealth capability of Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 fighter jet, in remarks suggesting the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system would have an important advocate.
Wilson, a former U.S. representative from New Mexico, would become the top civilian overseeing the Air Force if confirmed by the Senate. Her purview would include weapons acquisitions like the stealthy F-35 jet.
Asked if she felt it would make sense to rely on a spruced-up version of the F-18, she said: “As a general matter, the real thing I don’t think you can do with an F-18 or an F-15 or an F-16 is give it stealth capability retroactively.”
Her comments are significant because Trump has suggested buying more Boeing Co F/A-18s, which he called “comparable” to the F-35. This is despite the F-35’s status as a stealth aircraft, meaning it is difficult for enemy radar to detect. The 1990s-vintage F/A-18 does not use stealth technology.
The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wilson’s nomination touched on expanding the size of the Air Force, acquisitions of new space and cyber warfare capabilities as well as aircraft like the F-35.
In January, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered cost-cutting reviews of two major aircraft acquisition programs including the F-35. The ongoing review is examining how to cut costs and also determine whether Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, with improvements, could be an effective, less expensive alternative to the F-35C variant.
Wilson did not delve into new acquisition program specifics during the hearing but said “the Air Force is too small for what the nation expects of it.”
She is the first civilian head of a military branch to testify before the Senate this year. Nominees for the Army and Navy have removed their names from consideration.
A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Wilson has been president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology since 2013 and said during her testimony that her nomination was “unexpected.”
The Senate must hold a vote to confirm Wilson as the secretary of the Air Force. (Reporting by Mike Stone in Arlington, Va.; Editing by Matthew Lewis)