WASHINGTON Israel wants to start buying radar-evading Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35 fighter jets as soon as 2011, with delivery likely about two years later, a U.S. F-35 program official said on Wednesday.
The interest in acquiring an initial batch of up to 25 F-35s dovetails with Israeli fears that Iran is seeking a nuclear bomb and could have it as soon as 2010, sooner than predicted by the United States.
Iran says its nuclear ambitions are limited to generating electricity.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in Washington on Tuesday, at the start of a three-day visit to the United States, that the Iranian nuclear program must be stopped by "all possible means".
The single-seat, supersonic F-35 is hard to detect by radar and is designed to knock out enemy fighters while simultaneously carrying out bombing missions.
Olmert was to meet President George W. Bush later on Wednesday for talks that could include Israel's interest in the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter. Israel also may be interested later in the F-35B version that can land vertically.
"It's possible that things could come up," said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, when asked about possible Bush-Olmert talks on arms sales to Israel. "Obviously Israel wants to defend itself, and the United States has been supportive."
An Israeli Embassy spokesman declined to comment.
Israel is seeking to integrate its own weapons, communications, command, control and intelligence systems into the F-35, said the Pentagon program official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the matter's sensitivity.
The U.S. official predicted a government-to-government agreement would occur in the fall of 2009, after the projected completion of contract negotiations and technology-transfer pacts.
Israel recently submitted a formal request for pricing information and wants to start buying "as early as fiscal 2011," the official said, adding deliveries typically take about two years.
Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier, said on Wednesday it had "production maturity and capacity to handle additional F-35 aircraft in the 2011 time frame and beyond." The company calls the F-35 the most electronically advanced aircraft ever built, with capabilities unavailable in current multi-role fighters.
The F-35A is expected to have an unrefueled combat radius of 600 nautical miles or so, according to the Congressional Research Service and other experts, meaning the distance it could travel to a target and return without refueling.
Possible Iranian targets are more than 700 miles from Tel Aviv, depending on the flight route. Israel recently has stepped its work on mid-air refueling.
Israel's proposed early purchase of the F-35 is good news for Lockheed Martin and for the Pentagon program, which is pushing co-development partners to stick to projected purchase plans to keep the aircraft as affordable as possible.
The "average unit recurring flyaway costs" for the F-35A have remained stable in the upper $40 million range in baseline 2002 dollars, said John Smith, a Lockheed Martin spokesman. Early purchases could cost considerably more.
So far, Lockheed Martin has one U.S. order for two F-35As plus funding authorization for six more along with six of the F-35B "short takeoff and vertical landing" models.
Eight countries, including Britain, Turkey and Australia, helped foot the bill to develop the F-35.
Lockheed's key subcontractors are Northrop Grumman Corp
(NOC.N) and BAE Systems Plc (BAES.L). Two separate, interchangeable engines are under development by United Technologies Corp's (UTX.N) Pratt & Whitney unit, and by General Electric Co (GE.N) and Rolls Royce Group Plc (RR.L).
Britain is due to get two F-35As from the third production batch for its operational tests and evaluation. The Netherlands would get one. Italy is close to a final decision to buy one at the same time.
An Israeli purchase might be part of the fifth production series, the Pentagon program official said, about the same time Australia may buy its first.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Jeffrey Heller in Washington, Dan Williams in Israel; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)