* 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 (Reuters) - 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 its order.
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.
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.