September 17, 2013 / 7:04 PM / 6 years ago

Exclusive: Belgium considers Lockheed F-35 to replace F-16s - source

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. government officials have briefed the Belgian government about the capabilities of the Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35 fighter jet, as Brussels prepares to replace its aging fleet of 60 F-16s, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Tuesday.

The source, who was not authorised to speak publicly, said Belgium was considering buying 35 to 55 of the new radar-evading F-35 jets. No decisions are expected until late 2014 at the earliest after next year’s elections in Belgium.

Belgium was one of the original NATO partners to buy the F-16 fighter jet, also built by Lockheed; but unlike Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands, it did not join the international consortium that funded development of the F-35.

U.S. government officials have visited Belgium to discuss the F-35, which is being built to replace the F-16 and a dozen other warplanes in use around the world, according to the source.

The current Belgian government says a decision on replacing the F-16s will be made by the next government after elections in early summer 2014.

A Belgian defence ministry spokesman said the current jets will have to be replaced at some stage but no decision will be taken before the new government takes office.

Lockheed’s F-35 programme manager, Lorraine Martin, declined comment, saying that foreign military sales are handled by the U.S. government.

U.S. defence officials had no immediate comment.

Lockheed is building three variants of the F-35 for the U.S. military, and eight countries that helped fund its development: Britain, Australia, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey and Denmark. Israel and Japan have also placed orders.

South Korea is expected to pick a winner later this month in a fighter competition that pits the Lockheed F-35 fighter against Boeing Co’s (BA.N) F-15 and the Eurofighter Typhoon built by a consortium of European companies.

Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; editing by Ros Krasny, Gerald E. McCormick and Kenneth Barry

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