Grounding, budget woes cloud F-35 warplane sales push in Australia

Sun Feb 24, 2013 3:33pm EST
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By Rob Taylor and Andrea Shalal-Esa

CANBERRA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - This year's second grounding of Lockheed Martin Corp's vaunted F-35 warplane, plus looming U.S. defense cuts, are likely to complicate a push this week by Lockheed and U.S. officials to convince wary Australian lawmakers and generals to stick to a plan to buy 100 of the jets.

Australia, a close American ally, is considering doubling its fleet of 24 Boeing Co F/A-18 Super Hornets amid delays and setbacks in Lockheed's $396 billion F-35 project.

That means Canberra could buy far fewer F-35s than initially planned, at a critical time when Canada is also rethinking its plans to make the F-35 - also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) - its future frontline warplane.

Budget cuts have already forced Italy to scale back its orders, and Turkey has delayed its purchases by two years, though orders from Japan and Israel have buoyed the firm, and additional Israeli orders are expected in 2013.

Singapore has also taken a more active interest in the radar-evading jet, and South Korea is expected to announce a winner in its fighter contest late this year.

Australia and others are watching orders and problems with the jet with growing concern, since every reduction drives up the price of the remaining fighters to be built.

Given that, Friday's news that the plane was being grounded for the second time in two months, this time after a routine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade, was especially inopportune for Lockheed.

"It is a nuisance," said a spokesman for the Dutch defense ministry, which has already paid for two test planes but will determine the size of its total F-35 order later this year. "We wait for results of the inquiry."   Continued...

Third Marine Aircraft Wing's first F-35B arrives on the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma flightline, in Yuma, Arizona, in this U.S. Marine Corps handout photo taken November 16, 2012. REUTERS/U.S. Marine Corps/DVIDS/Lance Cpl. William Waterstreet/Handout