* U.S., partner countries delaying F-35 orders
* Lockheed acknowledges price to go up "somewhat"
* Italy says cutting spending on F-35 fighter
* International buyers of F-35 to gather March 1-2
By Walter Gibbs and Andrea Shalal-Esa
OSLO/WASHINGTON, Feb 14 Delays in U.S. and
international orders for Lockheed Martin Corp's new F-35
fighter jet will increase its total cost, Lockheed and U.S.
officials said on Tuesday, as Italy announced a cut in spending
on the warplane.
On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed plans to put off orders
for 179 F-35s over the next five years to save $15.1 billion and
allow more time for testing, a third restructuring in recent
U.S. officials insist they have not changed their plans to
develop and buy 2,443 jets at a cost of $382 billion over the
next few decades.
Continued schedule delays and talk of lingering technical
issues have prompted the eight countries that are helping to
fund development of the new plane -- Britain, Australia, Turkey,
Canada, Denmark, Norway, Italy and the Netherlands -- to rethink
their own near- and long-term plans.
Acting Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall told
reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. decision and any delays in
international orders would drive up the average price per unit
of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's costliest
Kendall, speaking at a defense conference hosted by Aviation
Week, gave no detailed cost estimates.
In Oslo, Lockheed executive vice president Tom Burbage told
Reuters that U.S. plans to drag out its purchases of the F-35
would increase the price of the plane somewhat."
"It will raise the overall average cost of the total
procurement of all the airplanes bought," Burbage said during a
visit to discuss Norway's plans for the fledgling aircraft.
In Rome, Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paola said Italy
would cut investment in the radar-evading new fighter, although
he said the plane was "still an important commitment" for the
country's defense system.
TRYING TO KEEP PARTNERS ON TRACK
Kendall said he was encouraging the international partners
to stay with the program, despite the Pentagon's own plans to
postpone orders for 179 jets for five years.
He said the Pentagon's unit cost projections for the F-35
fighter program factored in the expected sale of over 700
airplanes to international partners over the next decade,
including a significant number over the next five years.
"If they slip, it'll push (the price) up," Kendall said.
Kendall said Washington was seeking to assure its partners
that it would ramp up production rates as soon as possible, and
it was working hard to drive down the long-term cost of buying
and operating the jets.
Current plans call for the Pentagon to buy a total of 244
jets over the next five years, starting with 29 jets in fiscal
2013 and fiscal 2014, but rising sharply in the following years.
Sales to partner countries and Israel and Japan are slated to
total 285 over the same time period, but may yet change.
Kendall said he would get more details about the partners'
procurement plans at a meeting of the program's joint executive
steering board in Australia in mid-March.
Kendall said he spoke to one of the partner countries on
Monday, and the official assured him that their purchases would
remain unchanged in the near term. He did not name the country.
He said the Pentagon was trying to be transparent about
remaining design challenges on the F-35 -- and their solutions
-- so that the other countries could make well-informed
Norwegian Deputy Defense Minister Roger Ingebrigtsen said
Norway's purchase plan would be firmed up with little change and
presented to the parliament for approval by early April.
Before that, he said, he would attend a gathering of
international buyers called by Canada ahead of a formal meeting
in mid-March where they are to outline firm order plans.
"It is a kind of fact-finding meeting," he said. "What is
the price in Canada and what is the price in Norway? Why do we
sometimes see different numbers for different countries?"
CANADA SETS MARCH MEETING ON PROGRAM
Canada has sent out invitations for a meeting at its embassy
in Washington from March 1-2.
Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay repeatedly dodged a
question on Tuesday on whether the government was rethinking its
planned F-35 purchases, saying only that Canada was committed to
buying aircraft that would aid its troops.
Steve O'Bryan, the Lockheed official in charge of
international orders, told Reuters he had assured Canadian
officials during a visit last week that the price of their jets
would increase by a nominal, single-digit percentage amount as a
result of the U.S. slowdown.
Britain, the biggest outside contributor to F-35
development, has said it would wait until 2015 to decide how
many jets to buy.
Turkey has halved its initial delivery request for four
planes, part of a much larger order that it has not yet reduced,
and Australia is thinking about changing the pace of 12 initial
Lockheed's Burbage said none of the international partners
had scaled back their formal commitments yet.