Lockheed says interest growing in F-35 fighter

ORLANDO, Florida Fri Feb 27, 2009 6:29pm GMT

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ORLANDO, Florida Feb 27 (Reuters) - Finland and Belgium have become the latest countries to speak to the Pentagon about possible purchase of the multinational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, said manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N).

Three variants of the radar-evading F-35 are being developed with financing from the United States and eight other countries. Lockheed Martin calls it the world's most advanced multi-role fighter.

"Finland and Belgium have expressed interest to the JPO," said Chris Geisel, a Lockheed spokesman, referring to the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Program office.

Spain, looking eventually to replace its Harrier jump jets, has gone further, with a contractual study in place since late 2007, Geisel said. Greece and South Korea each received F-35 briefings from the U.S. government early this year, he added.

F-35 competitors include Saab's (SAABb.ST) Gripen, the Dassault (AVMD.PA) Rafale, Russia's MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35, and the Eurofighter Typhoon made by a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies.

Israel is the furthest along in a projected government-to-government F-35 deal. It appears likely to buy an initial 25 F-35s in 2012 for delivery in 2014, with an option for 50 more, Dan Crowley, Lockheed's F-35 program general manager, told a briefing Thursday during a U.S. Air Force Association symposium in Orlando, Florida.

Crowley said Singapore appears likely to get F-35s two years after Israel. Asked about other potential buyers through the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales program, Crowley said Japan has expressed interest but is "farther out" on a decision as it weighs other options.

Lockheed says all 24 countries that fly its F-16 fighter are potential customers for the F-35, which is designed to replace at least 13 types of aircraft, including the F-16.

The eight countries that have joined the United States to co-develop the F-35 -- Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway -- appear to be largely sticking to their plans to buy some 730 F-35s of their own, Pentagon officials have said.

The United States currently plans to buy a total of 2,443 F-35 models -- including 1,763 for the U.S. Air Force and 680 for the Marine Corps and Navy together. It is the costliest U.S. arms acquisition program ever at a projected $299 billion over the next two decades.

"As we mature the F-35, we continue to see evidence of ever-strengthening customer support," including statements of intent to buy from Norway and the Netherlands, Crowley said.

"We will see more of the same in 2009," he said, "as our international partners begin ordering their first airplanes."

Lockheed's chief F-35 subcontractors are Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N) and BAE Systems Plc (BAES.L). Two rival, interchangeable F-35 engines are under development. One is built by United Technologies Corp (UTX.N)'s Pratt & Whitney unit; the other by a team of General Electric Co (GE.N) and Rolls-Royce Group Plc (RR.L).

Lockheed said it was on track to meet its F-35 cost projections.

It said the conventional take-off and landing model was projected to cost in the "upper" $60 million range per copy in adjusted 2014 dollars, when full production is due to kick in.

The short takeoff and landing version, to be used by the U.S. Marine Corps, is projected to cost in the mid-to-upper $80 million range, the company said, citing what it called Pentagon program office projections.

The projection for the variant designed to land on Navy aircraft carrier is in the low $90 million range in 2015 dollars, Geisel said.

"These costs represent aircraft early in the production cycle when aircraft costs are highest," he added. He said as production ramps up, cost per aircraft is projected to decrease. (Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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