Finland set to sign deal with U.S. for 64 F-35 jets -sources

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A formation of U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jets perform aerial maneuvers during as part of a combat power exercise over Utah Test and Training Range, Utah, U.S. November 19, 2018. Picture taken November 19, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Cory D. Payne/Handout via REUTERS.

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WASHINGTON, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Finland's formal purchase agreement for F-35 fighter jets could be signed as soon as Friday, U.S.-based sources familiar with the plan said on Thursday, bringing the stealthy new planes one step closer to deploying in coming years on Russia's northern flank.

In December, Finland said it would replace its ageing F/A-18 combat jets with 64 F-35s planes and weapons systems in a deal $9.4 billion dollar deal. read more The deal is a foreign military sale through the U.S. government, but Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) is the principal contractor for the jets.

"This is another clear sign of how serious Finland has always been about its national defense," Finland's ambassador to the United States, Mikko Hautala, said in a statement. Hautala said, "it is part of our long-term planning and has nothing to do with the current situation as such." He did not comment on any potential deal signing for the jets.

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Russia, which shares a long border with Finland, has continued to mass troops near Ukraine. The standoff between Ukraine and Russia has prompted NATO to beef up the military presence on its own eastern flank.

Finland has no plans at present to join NATO, its foreign minister said in January. read more Still, Finland is buying NATO-compatible military equipment, which will allow for greater cooperation.

Finland, which shares a difficult history with Russia after the two clashed during World War Two, has long maintained the door to NATO open, saying it has the right to apply for membership if it so chooses.

Three people familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity said that as early as Friday Finland could sign the paperwork formalizing the jet deal and that production can begin. Finland ran a multi-year competition to replace its fleet of F-18s.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment.

Finland will begin to phase in the F-35 jets in 2027, the government has said.

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Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio and Sandra Maler

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