The UK deal, which includes fuel, hangars, training and operational
support for the jets, was initially expected this week but British
authorities put off the announcement to avoid overlapping with the
release of a major assessment of weapons systems by Britain's
National Audit Office, the sources said.
A spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defense said the agency
expected "an announcement relating to future investment" in the F-35
program soon. "It is not appropriate to comment on speculation while
negotiations are ongoing," he said.
The United States is counting on orders from Britain and other
countries that helped pay for development of the new F-35 Joint
Strike Fighter to offset a series of delays in U.S. orders caused by
mounting pressure on military spending.
The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps had been slated to order a
total of 42 jets in fiscal 2015, which begins October 1, up from 29
in fiscal 2014. But mandatory budget cuts will force the Pentagon to
scale back those orders once again, according to the sources.
Several sources said they expected the fiscal 2015 budget request to
call for three to six fewer F-35s than expected.
The Pentagon's top arms buyer Frank Kendall told reporters at the
Singapore air show earlier Tuesday that tighter budgets would force
tough decisions about research and procurement, but the F-35 fighter
and other key arms programs remained a top priority.
"The F-35 remains — despite its relatively high cost — a premier,
number-one priority conventional warfare program for us, so we're
going to continue that under almost any budget level I would imagine
that we would have to live with," he said.
Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Japan and Israel are also ordering
F-35 fighters in fiscal 2015 as part of the ninth batch of jets to
be built. Turkey is expected to order two jets in coming weeks.
U.S. and foreign orders were initially expected to swell the ninth
batch of jets to a new high around 70 planes, but the number will
likely come in closer to 65, said one of the sources who was not
authorized to speak publicly.
The Pentagon's F-35 program office is expected to award Lockheed a
large contract for advanced procurement of titanium and other
long-lead materials needed for those jets later this month or early
next, according to the sources.
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Lockheed and the Pentagon are currently in contract negotiations
about the eighth batch of jets, which were funded by the fiscal 2014
Canada was initially slated to order 4 F-35s as part of the ninth
production batch, but officials are rethinking the decision after
procurement controversies. Ottawa has also been talking with the
makers of four other fighters, including Boeing Co <BA.N> and
Dassault Aviation <AVMD.PA>.
Canada is wrestling with the need to extend the service life of the
aging fleet of F/A-18A fighters that it bought from Boeing in the
Ottawa is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to proceed with
an F-35 order or launch a fresh competition.
Australia, faced with the same issues several years ago, had
estimated the total cost of service life extension and upgrade
programs for its F/A-18 A- and B-model planes at over $3.2 billion
from 1995 to 2015.
The UK order, when it comes, will include some funding for Lockheed
and the other key contractors on the F-35 program, as well as work
to be done in Britain on building the infrastructure for the new
British Defense Minister Philip Hammond told the BBC on Tuesday that
he was not worried about technical issues on the F-35, and remained
confident the plane would be fitted with the weapons it needs in
time for early operational use in 2020.
(Additional reporting by Brenda Goh in
London; editing by Stephen Coates)
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