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Lockheed hopes to press F-35 momentum

The government of Japan could have chosen almost any fighter jet in the world as its new air force flagship -- and it picked ours, a top Lockheed Martin executive said Tuesday.

For Steve O'Bryan, the company's vice president for F-35 program integration and business development, Japan's choice is a full vote of confidence in the airplane itself and the overall program, one he and other top officials hope will be noticed in Washington and another important capital: Seoul.

"An independent analysis took a look at this program, it was a rigorous and open process, and it selected F-35," he told reporters in a conference call. "Japan, Israel, three U.S. services, eight international partners -- everybody is moving to F-35."

After Japan's announcement that it's joining Club F-35 as a foreign military sales customer, Lockheed can almost taste another potential deal with South Korea. The Joint Program Office already has responded to a South Korean request for information about the Lightning II, O'Bryan said, and you better believe that when the South wants bids, Lockheed (via FMS) will be raring to go.

In so many words, O'Bryan argued that it would be good for everyone: Each new customer's order adds airplanes to the total run, reducing their individual cost. Plus having the American, Australian, Japanese and potentially South Korean air forces all flying the same advanced new fighter could deter what O'Bryan called "advanced threats" in "a part of the world with significant security challenges."

And of course there's more: Japan's F-35 buy could create as many as 10,000 jobs in the United States, O'Bryan said, irrespective of whether Japan eventually begins to assemble its own airplanes. The the first four Japanese F-35As will be built in Fort Worth, Texas. Both Lockheed and engine-builder Pratt & Whitney have offered to help set up assembly facilities in Japan, but many of the jets' original components would still be manufactured in the U.S. All this expansion and growth would only continue with a South Korean deal.

Lockheed's bullishness on the F-35 is striking in comparison to the recent tone about the program in Washington. There's a perception that the budget sharks are already circling, and DoD already has nibbled away at the numbers of jets it has ordered to cover the program's apparently ever-growing costs. Plus there were all the reports of problems with the airplanes themselves -- worries about flight tests, about the tailhook aboard the Navy's C variant, about whether the Marines' B would ever get off "probation." Then there's the never-ending saga about the pilots' advanced helmet. And so on.

The aura of pessimism about the American part of the program, which makes up the lion's share, could be one reason Lockheed is so keen about adding as many international customers as it can. If DoD's reduced budget growth means American jets are delayed or go away, international orders might soften the blow. Major American cutbacks, however, may mean the house of cards falls apart, and Boeing, now coiled up like a jungle cat, can pounce and offer Japan, South Korea and Australia -- at least -- the latest wham-o-dyne versions of its Super Hornet.

For now, however, the F-35's ongoing and well-documented problems are apparently not enough to dissuade new customers from getting on the bandwagon.

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