WASHINGTON–The Pentagon will buy another 43 F-35 fighter jets worth roughly US$4 billion from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, officials said Tuesday, four months after it was briefly grounded following an engine fire. Although final details have to be worked out, the ��handshake agreement�� will mean the price of each plane will drop slightly within America’s most expensive weapons program, said Kyra Hawn, spokeswoman for the Joint Strike Fighter office. The price per aircraft will be ��approximately 3.6 percent lower than the previous contract,�� Hawn said. That would put the price of the plane at roughly around US$100 million, according to some estimates, though the cost varies for each of the three variants of the jet. The radar-evading F-35 has been portrayed as the future backbone of the military’s fighter fleet, supposed to preserve U.S. dominance in the skies. But the program has struggled with technical problems, budget overruns and repeated delays. The latest headache came in June when a mysterious engine fire led commanders to ground the fleet briefly until the problem could be resolved. As a result, officials had to cancel plans to send the F-35 to fly at Britain’s prestigious Farnborough air show in July because of safety precautions. Technicians are now carrying out repairs in the test fleet to ensure the plane’s engines are sound, according to Pentagon officials. The latest deal calls for manufacturing an additional 29 jets for the United States, as well as the first two F-35s for Israel and the first four of the aircraft for Japan.
In addition, the agreement will deliver two F-35s each for Italy and Norway and four fighters for Britain. There are three versions of the aircraft, a standard model for the U.S. Air Force, one designed for short take-off and vertical landings for the U.S. Marine Corps and another outfitted to land on an aircraft carrier for the Navy. Despite being years behind schedule, the F-35 enjoys strong support in Congress, and contractor Lockheed Martin has spread the work for the plane across 45 U.S. states. The Pentagon plans to spend US$391.2 billion on a total of 2,443 aircraft. When taking into account the cost of flying and maintaining the F-35 over the course of its life, the program could cost more than a trillion dollars, according to the Government Accountability Office.