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US slows Lockheed's F-35 fighter program

The US Defense Department is slowing Lockheed Martin Corp's $300 billion F-35 fighter jet program, a multinational effort, to stabilize its schedule and costs, according to draft budget documents obtained by Reuters.

The department's fiscal 2011 budget will request $10.7 billion to continue the F-35's development and to procure 42 aircraft, a budget overview shows.

Overall, the plan is to cut planned purchases by 10 aircraft in fiscal 2011 and a total of 122 through 2015.

The Pentagon “has adjusted F-35 procurement quantities based on new data on costs and on likely orders from our foreign nations partners and realigned development and test schedules,” the document said without giving details.

The budget reflects an F-35 restructuring “to stabilize its schedule and costs,” the overview said.

A “couple” of unnamed co-development partners are delaying planned purchases of the jet, a move that will boost initial prices of the costliest ever US arms purchase, a senior Pentagon program official told Reuters in November.

“They're not going to buy as early as we'd thought they were going to buy,” Jon Schreiber, who heads the program's international aspects, told Reuters at the time. He then said he was unaware of any partner plans to scale back the number of its purchases “at this point.”

Lockheed wrapped up just 10% of the F-35's planned flight tests in fiscal 2009 because of aircraft delivery delays, a separate report by the Pentagon's top weapons tester said.

Only 16 of 168 planned flights took place last year, the second year of flight testing, according to an annual weapons survey by the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation, or DOT&E. A copy was obtained by Reuters.

Lockheed, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier by sales, said the DOT&E report did not reflect recent flight-test progress.

Although late deliveries of aircraft impacted early results, “the program has turned the corner of both production and test and verification and we fully expect to complete developmental testing in the prescribed time frame (2014),” John Kent, a company spokesman, said by email.

He said the aircraft's software was about 80% complete. Its stability and reliability was about 20 times greater than Lockheed's premier F-22 fighter at a comparable point in development, Kent added.

Eight international partners have co-financed the F-35: Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.

Three F-35 variants are designed to replace Lockheed's F-16 and 12 other warplanes.

Relative affordability is meant to be a hallmark of the program. Lockheed has projected it will sell up to 4,500 F-35s worldwide in coming decades. (Reuters)