(Updates with UK, US statements confirming move)
By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON, April 16 The U.S. Defense Department
has approved the first trans-Atlantic flight of Lockheed Martin
Corp's F-35 fighter jet in July to take part in two
international air shows near London, U.S. and British officials
The new warplane will make its international debut at the
Royal International Air Tattoo, or RIAT, an annual military air
show held outside London in July, followed by appearances at the
show, held every other year, said the officials.
"The U.S. and the UK have worked closely together on the
F-35 project from the beginning. This fifth generation stealth
combat aircraft will be a major boost to British combat air
power and it is entirely fitting that the F-35's first stop
outside the United States will be in the UK," British Defense
Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement.
Lockheed is the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier.
The jet's appearance will be closely watched by potential
buyers, including Canada and Denmark, which helped fund the
plane's development but are rethinking their procurements.
F-35 backers say the decision reflects growing confidence in
the $392 billion program, the Pentagon's costliest weapons
program, but skeptics say the plane still faces challenges with
completing the software needed to integrate weapons on the jet.
Britain, which contributed $2 billion to the development of
the new radar-evading fighter jet and plans to buy 138 F-35s in
coming years, asked for the jet's participation to help showcase
the increasing maturity of the new radar-evading plane. Britain
was also the first international partner on the program.
Aerospace analyst, Richard Aboulafia with the Virginia-based
Teal Group, said the F-35's first overseas appearance marked the
start of a more aggressive drive to lock in foreign orders at a
time when the U.S. military has repeatedly delayed its own.
"What they really need to do is transform the program's
economics by getting above that 30-something (annual production)
plateau they're on," he said. "They need to get to a virtuous
cycle where numbers go up and costs go down ... the opposite of
a death spiral."
Pentagon officials say they expect the plane's costs to fall
to the mid-$80 million range by 2018 or 2019 from around $112
million now, and are working closely with the industry to drive
the price down further.
But the Pentagon warned on Tuesday it would have to postpone
orders for 17 more F-35s from fiscal 2016-2019 unless Congress
reverses mandatory spending cuts due to resume in 2016.
Lockheed is developing three models of the F-35 for the U.S.
military and eight international partners: Britain, Australia,
Canada, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands.
Israel and Japan have also placed orders, and South Korea has
said it plans to order F-35s later this year.
Current plans call for several F-35s to participate in the
air shows, including at least one of the three F-35 B-model jets
already built for Britain, with a UK pilot at the controls.
U.S. and UK officials agreed on the need to bring over a
number of aircraft to avoid any technical flight disruptions.
In 2011, Airbus' delayed and over-budget A400 military
transport plane was forced to curtail its debut appearance at
the Paris Air Show after the plane suffered a gearbox problem in
one of its powerful turbo-prop engines.
U.S. defense officials said the overseas flights would be
used for additional training and would help the F-35 program
office learn how the plane's logistics, maintenance, aerial
refueling, and security systems work overseas.
Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp,
builds the single engine that powers the plane. Britain's Rolls
Royce Group builds the lift fan that enables the B-model
of the F-35 to land like a helicopter.
Other major contractors on the F-35 program include Northrop
Grumman Corp and Britain's BAE Systems.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Sofina
Mirza-Reid and Bernard Orr)