WASHINGTON — Boeing could be the latest international aircraft-maker to garner a deal for more fighter aircraft, with word that the US government is nearing agreement to sell up to 40 F/A-18 E and F Super Hornet strike fighters to Kuwait.

The deal, first reported Wednesday by Reuters, has yet to be officially announced by either the US or Kuwait, but officials in Washington have confirmed an agreement is close.

Any deal will would require approval from the US Congress, but it's unlikely a proposed sale to Kuwait, a staunch US ally in the Persian Gulf, would meet serious opposition.

A major Super Hornet sale would breathe new life into the Boeing production line, which is working on new aircraft for the US Navy and Australia, but which will deliver the last of those aircraft by the end of 2017. Boeing officials have said production of two aircraft per month, or 24 per year, is necessary to keep the St. Louis, Missouri production line at the break-even point, although a slightly slower lesser rate can be managed. Continued procurement of the aircraft by either the Navy or a foreign customer would keep the line economically viable and aide further international sales.

The Navy has not officially requested any Super Hornet variants since the 2014 budget. But Congress added fifteen EA-18G Growler electronic attack variants into the 2015 defense acts, and the service listed 12 Super Hornets in its 2016 unfunded requirements list. In its markup last week of the 2016 defense authorization act, the House Armed Services committee added $1.2 billion to buy the 12 aircraft – a first step in getting Super Hornets into the full defense bills.

"A near-term international sale would be great news for Boeing and the Navy," said Caroline Hutcheson, a Boeing spokesperson in Washington. "It's important to note that the combination of a major sale along with funding for the 12 Super Hornets in the Navy's unfunded requirements list would allow us to continue producing jets without a break in the line."

Hutcheson referred specific comment on foreign military sales to the US government. Neither Navy or State Department officials would comment on the record.

Boeing has lost out in recent competitions to non-US manufacturers, notably in Brazil to the Swedish Saab Gripen, and in India to the French Dassault Rafale. The company is pinning hopes on selling Super Hornets to Denmark and possibly Canada, but those countries are still partners in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

In Kuwait, Boeing had been up against the Eurofighter Typhoon. Kuwait tentatively agreed in early 2014 to go with the Typhoon, but subsequently backed off.

It is not yet clear how many single-seat F/A-18Es and two-seat F/A-18Fs are involved in the Kuwait deal. Some media accounts reported a deal for 28 of the Boeing aircraft, while US sources indicate as many as 40 F/A-18s could be sold -- probably under an initial deal for 28 aircraft with an option for 12 more. It's estimated the value of the deal would be greater than $3 billion.

If confirmed, Kuwait would become the second international customer for the Super Hornet, after Australia. The Royal Australian Air Force operates 24 F/A-18Fs, and is set to take initial delivery this summer of the first of 12 EA-18G Growlers.

E-mail ccavas@defensenews.com

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