UPDATE 1-Turkey keeps plan to buy 100 F-35 fighter jets

Thu Feb 23, 2012 4:34am EST

* Turkey not currently thinking of abandoning purchases

* Partners reconsidering orders amid delays, rising costs

* Turkey to order two jets for 2015 delivery

ISTANBUL, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Turkey is sticking to plans to buy 100 of Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jets for $16 billion, with an initial order of two planes for delivery in 2015, its defence minister said, amid concerns about the project's delays and rising costs.

The Pentagon has said the $382 billion programme to build the radar-evading warplane was still showing "continued progress" and Lockheed said the aircraft had made outstanding progress in flight test, training and production in 2011.

However, international partners are reconsidering their orders. Canada has called a March 2 meeting of officials from the partner nations, which include Turkey, Britain, Australia, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway in Washington.

"Abandoning the planes' purchase is not being considered currently," Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz said in a written answer to a question from an opposition lawmaker, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters on Thursday.

"In the first stage, orders will be given for two F-35 planes. Turkey plans in total to buy 100 F-35 warplanes," the minister said.

"As of today the total amount which will be paid under the project is envisaged to be around $16 billion," he added.

He said the level of plane orders for future years will be considered in the light of ongoing negotiations. Turkey's payments so far in the development phases of the project totalled $315 million.

Lockheed Martin, the No. 1 U.S. defence contractor, lost $31.5 million in award fees for the F-35 in 2011, the second consecutive year it did not meet Pentagon development goals for the aircraft, which is now facing a third restructuring.

The F-35 programme has come under increased pressure in recent weeks given the Pentagon's plan to postpone orders of 179 F-35 fighter planes for five years, as part of defence budget cuts. The move will save $15.1 billion, but will likely drive up the price per plane, according to Lockheed and U.S. officials.

Senior U.S. defence officials met late on Tuesday to review a revised cost estimate and acquisition schedule for its biggest weapons programme, but details and a final decision will not be announced for several weeks, said spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin.

The Pentagon's high-level Defense Acquisition Board last met on Jan. 17 to review the plane's development, production and sustainment costs, concluding that it was showing "continued progress", she said.

Last week, Italy's defence minister said his country will cut its order for the F-35s by more than 30 percent as part of Prime Minister Mario Monti's battle against state spending.

Canada will not spend more than it budgeted for the jets, a federal minister said last week.

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