An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft banks over the flightline at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida on, April 23, 2009. The aircraft is the first F-35 to visit the base which will be the future home of the JSF training facility. (UPI Photo/Julianne Showalter/US Air Force) | License Photo
ANKARA, Turkey, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Turkey may buy up to 116 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, a deal that could be undermined by U.S. efforts to cut costs of one of the most expensive military programs ever.
"We're planning to buy 100 aircraft with an additional option of another 16," Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul was quoted as saying by Defensenews.com.
Turkey is a member of the U.S.-led nine-nation Joint Strike Fighter consortium, which is building three variants of the F-35. It had previously said it would buy 100 planes, with the Gonul statement for the first time indicating it could become a larger purchase.
Turkey, the NATO member with the second-largest armed forces behind the United States, has a fleet of 240 American-made F-16 jets it wants to gradually replace with new F-35 planes.
Yet as the JSF program is running into more and more trouble, Ankara is worried that the deal might never materialize.
The original development cost estimates for the program have increased 56 percent to $59.4 billion, Aviation Week reports, prompting the Pentagon to cut the program's funds in the 2012 budget. The United States is covering 90 percent of the program's costs.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is especially critical of the F-35B variant, a short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing aircraft that has become much more faulty and expensive than planned.
Gates said he would give producer Lockheed Martin two years to come up with a more efficient and less costly plane or the program would be buried. Meanwhile, Gates decided to delay the purchase of 124 of the 449 units of the F35-B version until 2016.
The United States isn't alone. Several governments have mulled delaying or cutting purchases of F-35A models to slash defense spending.
Norway in October said it would push back by two years to 2018 its order of 16 planes, reaffirming, however, its commitment as a "serious and credible partner" to the program.
Yet the delays could push up costs for orders, as the consortium is forced to produce and sell fewer planes. Moreover, new competition for the U.S. fifth-generation jet has arrived: The Chinese have recently tested what they said is their new stealth plane, the J-20, developed by China Aviation Industry Corp.
The JSF consortium is led by the United States and also includes Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, Norway and Australia. Apart from Lockheed Martin, suppliers involved in the program include U.S. partners Northrop Grumman and engine maker Pratt & Whitney, as well as BAE Systems from Britain.