- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2014

South Korea has agreed to buy 40 of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, good news for a plane that has been plagued by cost overruns and persistent software problems, U.S. weapons industry sources said on Monday.

While Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s lead manufacturer, said the specifics of the deal are still being hammered out, Reuters reported that Seoul expects to spend $6.79 billion on the jets.

News of the deal comes just as the Government Accountability Office is warning Congress that navigating, targeting and reconnaissance system problems have slowed testing of the cutting-edge F-35s.

The GAO report is expected to be made public later this week, but a Lockheed Martin representative sounded optimistic over the South Korean deal on Monday.

The final price of the fighter jets will be determined following negotiations between South Korea and U.S. governments, said Lockheed spokesman Eric Schnaible, who said a final purchase price could be reached by the end of this summer.

“Like with any business transaction, negotiations are private between parties until a decision is reached and then made public,” Mr. Schnaible told The Washington Times. “The [South] Koreans indicated they are ready to start soon, so our team will travel to Seoul soon, as in next week, to begin discussions.”

It remains to be seen how the discussions may be shaped by the recent GAO findings, the existence of which were first reported on by Bloomberg News.

Bloomberg reported on Friday that the Marine Corps, which is supposed to have a combat-ready version of the F-35 in mid-2015, may have to wait up to 13 months for the helmet capabilities which allow a pilot to target and engage the opposition.

In addition, the delays could expand “as they also put the timely delivery of Air Force and Navy initial operating capabilities at risk,” Bloomberg reported.

The Air Force’s version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is supposed to be ready in 2016, followed by the Navy version two years later.

A final version of the GAO’s F-35 report is expected to be featured at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, according to Bloomberg.

For South Korea, defense industry sources say the sweet spot of the F-35 deal lies in the country’s ability to build small parts of the fighter jet aircraft.

Mr. Schnaible said that the proposal Lockheed Martin made to South Korea would allow the country to manufacture the center wing and horizontal/vertical tails of the F-35 aircraft.

He said South Korea will also have “industrial opportunities” to produce parts of the engine.

To date, 10 countries have signed onto the Pentagon’s next-generation fighter jet program: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Turkey, Britain and the United States. Israel and Japan have already signed deals to acquire F-35s, Lockheed Martin said Monday.

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