Lockheed sees increased Singapore interest in F-35 fighter

WASHINGTON Fri Nov 9, 2012 1:09pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Singapore is showing increased interest in buying Lockheed Martin Corp's (LMT.N) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a top executive with the company said late on Thursday, a week after China unveiled a second stealth fighter called the J-31.

Lockheed is building three variants of the stealthy warplane for the U.S. military and eight international partners -- Britain, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands, which are helping fund the plane's development.

Singapore became a security partner on the international fighter program in February 2003, along with Israel, which has already ordered an initial batch of the jets.

As security partners, Singapore and Israel both pledged to contribute about $50 million to the F-35 development effort, according to the globalsecurity.org website.

"Their (Singapore's) interest in the program is still quite strong," Tom Burbage, general manager of the F-35 program, told Reuters late on Thursday after a speech to the Royal Aeronautical Society at the British embassy in Washington.

"Their activity has picked up a little bit and it makes us think that they're going to become more active," Burbage said, when asked about Singapore's plans to place F-35 orders.

Washington is actively encouraging more exports of weapons systems such as the F-35 to strengthen ties with allies, and offset a budget-driven decline in its own procurement programs.

President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are traveling to Asia this month for a variety of visits, and to participate in the annual summit of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which includes Singapore.

Washington has sought to consolidate ties and reinforce U.S. influence across Asia as part of a "pivot" toward the region as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

NO FORMAL DEAL YET

Burbage said Lockheed officials were engaged in a close dialogue with Singapore about its interest in buying some of the F-35 fighter jets, and often visited the Asian country.

But he said Singapore had not made any formal agreements to buy the jets, or when such purchases could occur.

Defense consultant Loren Thompson said China's military expansion was putting increasing pressure on Singapore and other countries in the region to buy next-generation fighter planes.

"Every time China tests a new fighter it's a wake-up call for countries like Singapore," Thompson said.

Chinese media last week published images of a second Chinese stealth fighter jet after it made its maiden flight in the northeast province of Liaoning. {ID:nL3E8M23LS]

Aviation experts said the plane bore a strong resemblance to the F-35, fueling U.S. concerns about Chinese espionage efforts that were underscored in a draft of the 2012 report to Congress by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Singapore will also host the first U.S. littoral combat ship, "Freedom," which was also built by Lockheed, for a 10-month deployment next year.

Singapore is strategically located along the Strait of Malacca, the chief link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through which about 40 percent of world trade flows.

Burbage said the F-35 program was doing well and was 21 percent ahead of schedule with test flights for the year.

He said Air Force Major General Christopher Bogdan would assume control of the Pentagon's F-35 program office on December 6, a date confirmed by the Pentagon. Bogdan will receive a third star when he is promoted to lieutenant general the week before.

Bogdan, who will replace retiring Navy Vice Admiral David Venlet as the program executive officer, is a "very fast learner," Burbage told business executives at the embassy event.

Bogdan visited the Fort Worth, Texas plant where Lockheed builds the F-35, in October, a month after he described ties between Lockheed and the Pentagon as the "worst I've ever seen."

Burbage said Bogdan had a good visit to Fort Worth, and Lockheed was looking forward to working with both him and Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackely, who will oversee major acquisition decisions on the F-35.

(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)

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