* Australia approves first JSF purchase
* Decision on further purchases in 2012
* Wants up to 100 of the planes (Adds quote, graphic link)
CANBERRA, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Australia has approved the purchase of its first order of 14 Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, the defence minister said on Wednesday, a move aimed at retaining regional air superiority.
The A$3.2 billion ($2.9 billion) cost includes infrastructure and support for training and testing, and the planes will be ready for operations in Australia by 2018, John Faulkner said.
Australia is one of eight countries to join the United States to bankroll the radar-evading F-35, which is in the early stages of production. Other partners are Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark and Norway.
“The Joint Strike Fighter acquisition will allow Australia to maintain its regional air combat superiority,” Air Force Chief Air Marshal Mark Binskin said in a statement.
The approval comes after a senior Pentagon official on Monday warned some countries were delaying planned purchases of the jet, in a move that would increase initial prices for what is the costliest U.S. arms purchase.
Australia is considering buying between 72 and 100 Joint Strike Fighters to replace its fleet of F/A-18F Super Hornet fighters.
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Faulkner said the government will make a decision in 2012 on buying the next batch of the aircraft.
“By 2012, defence will have much firmer cost estimates for the remaining aircraft and necessary support and enabling capabilities as part of the first multi-year buy that is expected to comprise over 1,000 aircraft for the U.S., Australia and other partners,” he said.
U.S. officials have said they will keep secret the sensitive software codes to be used in the radar-evading fighter, limiting the ability of investor countries to maintain and upgrade the fighters without U.S. involvement.
The single-engine F-35 can switch quickly between air-to-ground and air-to-air missions while still flying — tricks heavily dependent on its 8 million lines of onboard software code. ($1=A$1.08) (Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +612 6273 2730; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com ((If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org))