WASHINGTON Dec 6 Strong demand from Gulf
countries for Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet
has prompted Washington to grapple with the thorny question
about releasing the jet to the region sooner than expected, a
senior U.S. defense official said.
Washington has already approved sales of the new stealth
fighter to a range of allies, including Turkey, South Korea,
Japan and Israel, but sales to the Gulf require a deeper review
given U.S. policy guidelines that call for Israel to maintain a
qualitative military edge in the Middle East.
Talk about selling the plane to the United Arab Emirates and
other U.S. allies in the Gulf came into the open during the
Dubai air show last month, with potential buyers weighing
whether to buy existing planes or wait for the U.S. government
to release the new radar-evading F-35.
Government officials and industry experts have said they do
not expect Washington to allow the sale of the F-35 to Gulf
countries until around 2020, just short of five years after
Israel receives its first F-35 fighters in 2016.
The senior U.S. official said the depth of interest in the
new fighter - the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program -
from Gulf countries came as a surprise to some in the U.S.
"We in the Defense Department now recognize that there is
significant interest there," said the official, who was not
authorized to speak publicly. "We knew eventually we were going
to have to face that question, but it's come upon us a little
sooner than we thought and we're going to have to deal with it."
Decisions about releasing sensitive technologies for sale to
foreign countries are made by the State Department in
consultation with the Pentagon and other government agencies.
"Eventually we're going to have to make a decision. We have
a very structured process in place for doing that. And it takes
a little bit of time," said the official. "But we are going to
have to make decisions on a tighter timeline than we thought."
U.S. government officials and weapons makers have put a
bigger focus on foreign arms sales in recent years as a way to
offset declines in projected U.S. military spending, and
buttress the Obama administration's drive to build partnerships
and help U.S. allies beef up their own military capacities.
The United States is particularly concerned about reassuring
Gulf nations that Washington remains committed to Middle East
security despite differences over Iran and Syria.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traveled to Bahrain this week
and is expected to deliver that message during a meeting with
regional defense officials on Saturday.
Lockheed is building three F-35 models for the U.S. military
and eight countries that helped fund its development: Britain,
Canada, Australia, Italy, Norway, Turkey, Denmark and the
Israel and Japan have also ordered the jet, and South Korea
signaled last month that it also expected to order the F-35.
"The interest in the airplane is coming about simply because
it's getting more mature and people are finally realizing that
it's really going to happen," said the official.
The $392 billion F-35 program has seen repeated delays and a
70 percent increase in costs over initial estimates, but U.S.
officials say the program is making good progress now.
Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan told a defense
conference on Wednesday that the program had a "tragic past,"
but the cost of the plane was coming down, flight testing was
continuing, and most technical issues had been addressed.