JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel may soon order 10 to 15 U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets, around half the number previously mentioned by defence sources in both countries, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Monday.
A reduced Israeli purchase could dent international confidence in the plane, which is being developed and built by Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) for the U.S. military and allies - a $399 billion endeavour that is the world's most expensive weapons program.
Israel bought 19 F-35s for $2.75 billion in 2010, with delivery scheduled between 2016 and 2018. Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, visiting the United States last month, agreed to a preliminary deal for 25 to 31 more planes subject to approval by an Israeli ministerial committee, sources said.
One committee member, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, said in an interview there was majority opposition to the scale of Yaalon's order and preference for a smaller purchase of 10 to 15 planes. A final decision is due in the coming days.
Steinitz declined to go into detail about the closed-door discussions, but he cited misgivings about whether the F-35's range, payload and manoeuvrability would suit Israel's needs. The Israelis are also husbanding a defence budget that faces cuts, even with some $3 billion in annual U.S. grants.
"We are not the Defence Ministry's rubber stamp," Steinitz said.
An Israeli defence official said the ministerial committee would likely compromise with a staggered plan whereby 13 F-35s would be bought now and another 18 in 2017. The 2010 deal gave Israel the option to buy 75 planes, or three squadrons.
The committee, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has met four times to discuss the purchase, twice extending deadlines on a decision. The delay could mean Israel would incur penalties on Citibank loan guarantees it had arranged to pay for the F-35s. Terms for the loans were due to expire on Nov. 15.
F-35 program spokesman Joe DellaVedova said the Pentagon would work to support the Israeli government once it finalised its plans.
A source familiar with the program said an Israeli decision to delay some F-35 orders would not derail projected production plans since the jets would have been built later anyway.
Another Israeli official linked the resistance Yaalon was meeting from cabinet colleagues to the July-August war in Gaza, which ended inconclusively and triggered calls for more investment in armoured troop carriers and munitions.
Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington; Writing by Dan Williams, Crispian Balmer and Steve Orlofsky