WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Thursday said Italy and Turkey would provide initial heavy maintenance of Lockheed Martin Corp’s new F-35 fighter jet and its engine in Europe from 2018, paving the way for billions of dollars in work by companies there.
The move reflects the growing maturity of the $399 billion weapons program, with over 120 jets already produced and U.S. and foreign militaries gearing up to start operating the jets around the world in coming years.
Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, the Pentagon’s F-35 program manager, said the decisions came after months of reviews and site visits, and were based on “best value” and other factors such as location and projected F-35 basing.
Bogdan said Italy would do initial heavy maintenance of the jets, with Britain providing backup if needed. He said that might be the case if Italy’s F-35 production facility was needed to build more jets than currently planned.
Heavy maintenance of the F135 engines that power the supersonic F-35 would be done in Turkey, but Norway and the Netherlands would also set up sites in two to three years, given the high cost of equipment required for testing, he said.
The engines are built by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp.
Bogdan told reporters the U.S. military had already begun work at sites for servicing the jets and engines in the United States, and would announce sites in Asia next week. Next year, he said U.S. officials would look at other elements involved in servicing a global fleet of jets that could reach 3,100 jets.
Bogdan underscored that other countries buying the jet could bid for that additional maintenance work in coming years.
The total value of maintenance work on the new warplanes could amount to “hundreds of billions of dollars” over the next 50 years, Bogdan said, given Pentagon estimates that it will cost the U.S. military over $1 trillion to operate and maintain the 2,457 jets that it plans to buy over that time.
Lockheed is developing three variants of the F-35 for the U.S. military and eight partners that helped fund its development: Britain, Australia, Italy, Norway, Turkey, the Netherlands, Denmark and Canada. Israel, Japan and South Korea have also placed orders for the planes.
The Marine Corps plans to start initial combat use of the planes in July 2015, with the Air Force following suit in 2016.
In Italy, much of the work will be done by Alenia, a unit of Finmeccanica SpA, which manages a $1 billion-plus government-owned final assembly and checkout facility in Cameri that is also building wings for F-35 jets.
The news provided a boost for the government of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and cements Italy’s commitment to the F-35 program. It comes at a time when some Italian lawmakers have suggested further reducing their country’s F-35 orders, which were already whittled back to 90 jets from 131 several years ago.
John Phillips, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, told reporters in Rome that the decision would “provide a very substantial economic benefit for Italy for decades into the future.”
Mauro Moretti, Finmeccanica CEO, said the work would result in a large number of jobs and other economic benefits. He said the firm was also vying for F-35 avionics and other components.
Norway also welcomed the news and said the work in its country would be done by AIM Norway, a privately held firm.
In Turkey, the work is likely to be done by Turkish Aerospace Industries, sources familiar with the matter said.
No comments were immediately available from Britain or the Netherlands.
Additional reporting by Isla Binnie and Danilo Masoni in Italy; Editing by Alden Bentley and Andrew Hay