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JSF delay seen risky for partners

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, May 10 (Reuters) A congressional mandate to slow Lockheed Martin Corp.'s 276.5 billion dollars F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program could pose risks for suppliers and international partners who need the airplane to replace aging fighters, a top Pentagon official told Reuters.

The radar-evading F-35 is the costliest US weapons project and involves eight overseas partners.

''There are lots of risks,'' US Defense Undersecretary Ken Krieg said in an interview yesterday.

''You have breaks in supplier capabilities,'' Krieg said.

Meanwhile, Britain and the other international partners involved in building the new plane are counting on its arrival as scheduled, he said, adding, ''We sort of have replacements that we need to do too.'' Other international participants are Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.

Krieg also said moves by both houses of Congress to restore funding for an alternate engine for the F-35 could possibly lead to cuts in the number of F-35 fighters to be bought.

The Pentagon had argued that scrapping the second engine would have saved 1.8 billion dollar over time, money sorely needed to pay for new weapons systems and replace helicopters and other equipment being worn out in the war in Iraq.

Lawmakers argued that keeping an alternate engine would fuel competition and drive costs lower in the long run.

''My guess is that the Congress will put it back in out of the hide of the program,'' Krieg said, when asked if restoring the second engine could lead to cuts in the total number of F-35s to be built. ''If you put it back ... then it comes out of something, doesn't it,'' he said.

Krieg defended the Pentagon's approach, but acknowledged Congress had the final say on spending. ''They're doing their constitutional function. I don't have to like all of it.'' Krieg said defense officials would meet with lawmakers about the program as Congress continued to consider defense spending legislation.

Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to slow the F-35 project, insisting that more testing occur before production starts.

The Senate committee and its House counterpart both restored about 400 million dollars in funding for development of an alternate engine by a team made up of General Electric Co. and Britain's Rolls-Royce Plc.

The engine would compete with one being built by United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt&Whitney unit.

The full House may vote on the bill, which authorizes 512.9 billion dollars in overall US defense spending, this week. The Senate is due to vote on its bill by the end of the month.

Once approved, negotiators from both houses will iron out differences and prepare a final version.

The United States is developing three variants of the supersonic F-35 in a program costing 276.5 billion dollars through 2027. Less than 1 percent of flight testing has been completed.

Reuters PDS VP0435

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