* Norway finalizing plans to order about 50 fighters
* Official does not see big change in price
* F-35 to fly at Florida training site on Tuesday
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
March 5 Norway's No. 2 defense official
said he was more upbeat about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
program than in a long time after visiting a test site in
California last week and meeting with the eight other partners
on the program.
Defense State Secretary Roger Ingebrigsten said on Monday
that Norway was finalizing its plans to buy "approximately 50
fighters," but did not expect any significant cost increases to
Lockheed Martin Corp is developing three variants of
the radar-evading, supersonic fighter jet for the United States
and eight partner countries - Canada, Britain, Australia,
Turkey, Denmark, Norway, Italy and the Netherlands.
Senior U.S. officials last week met with partner countries
and sought to reassure them that Washington remains committed to
the program, despite its own plans to postpone orders for 179
planes for five years.
That decision, driven by U.S. budget pressures, could delay
cost savings that will be realized once production is ramped up.
"We think that we are going to pay close to what we said we
would in 2008," Ingebrigsten told Reuters by telephone after
returning from his U.S. visit. "The main approach will be the
same as it has been since 2008."
He declined to provide details ahead of the Norwegian
government's submission to parliament in two weeks. Previous
plans called for Norway to buy 56 aircraft for 61 billion
Norwegian crown ($10.89 billion), in undiscounted 2011 crowns,
or 72 billion crowns when a greater contingency is counted.
"I can't say we're going to do exactly what we said in 2008
but our plan is to procure approximately 50 fighters," he said.
The slowdown in U.S. orders and budget constraints at home
have prompted some of the partners to rethink their own orders.
Italy last month cut its planned buy of 131 planes by 30 percent
and others may follow suit.
U.S. officials insist Washington still plans to spend $382
billion to buy a total of 2,443 fighters for the Air Force, the
Navy and Marine Corps, the costliest weapons program ever.
TEST SITE, FIRST FLIGHT
Ingebrigsten led a Norwegian delegation to Edwards Air Force
Base in California last week to visit one of two key test sites
for the new fighter.
"I haven't been so optimistic related to the F-35 ... for a
long time," Ingebrigsten said.
He said Friday's meeting of officials from the Pentagon,
Lockheed, and the eight partner countries was useful, with all
sides citing their continued support of the program. Canada
hosted the meeting at its embassy in Washington.
He praised U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his
deputy, Ashton Carter, who made a brief appearance at the
meeting, for their willingness to be transparent about the
program, and said U.S-Norwegian bilateral ties were strong.
The member countries will finalize their purchase plans
ahead of a formal military-level March 14-15 meeting in
Australia of representatives from all nine countries.
Ingebrigsten said delays or cuts in orders from the United
States and Italy, among others, could be bad news for the
program, but they would be partially offset by orders from
Japan, and possibly South Korea and Singapore in coming years.
Separately, officials at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida
said the F-35A, the conventional takeoff and landing variant
developed for the U.S. Air Force, would have its first flight at
the base on Tuesday morning.
Test pilots will fly the planes initially as they test out
the syllabus for the program that will be used to teach Air
Force and Marine Corps pilots to fly the new plane.