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Pentagon F-35 program chief lashes Lockheed, Pratt

Three F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (rear to front) AF-2, AF-3 and AF-4, can be seen flying over Edwards Air Force Base in this December 10, 20
Three F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (rear to front) AF-2, AF-3 and AF-4, can be seen flying over Edwards Air Force Base in this December 10, 20

By Jane Wardell

AVALON, Australia (Reuters) - The Pentagon program chief for the F-35 warplane slammed its commercial partners Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney on Wednesday, accusing them of trying to "squeeze every nickel" out of the U.S. government and failing to see the long-term benefits of the project.

U.S. Lieutenant-General Christopher Bogdan made the comments during a visit to Australia, where he has sought to convince lawmakers and generals to stick to a plan to buy 100 of the jets, an exercise complicated by the second grounding of the plane this year and looming U.S. defense cuts.

Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp , is sole supplier of engines to the $396 billion F-35, or Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed Martin provides the body of the radar-evading jet, the most expensive combat aircraft in history.

"What I see Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney doing today is behaving as if they are getting ready to sell me the very last F-35 and the very last engine and are trying to squeeze every nickel out of that last F-35 and that last engine," Bogdan told reporters at the Australian International Airshow in southern Victoria state.

"I want them both to start behaving like they want to be around for 40 years," he added. "I want them to take on some of the risk of this program, I want them to invest in cost reductions, I want them to do the things that will build a better relationship. I'm not getting all that love yet."

A Lockheed Martin executive at the airshow declined to comment when reached by Reuters, saying he was unaware of Bogdan's comments. Executives from Pratt & Whitney could not immediately be reached for comment.

Bogdan caused a stir shortly after joining the F-35 program last August when he described the relationship between the government and Lockheed Martin as the worst he'd ever seen. There had been little improvement since then, he said.

"Are they getting better? A little bit," he said. "Are they getting better at a rate I want to see them getting better? No, not yet."

If the project stays on track, Pratt & Whitney will eventually provide 4,000 engines and Lockheed Martin 3,000 planes.

The Pentagon plans to buy 2,443 of the warplanes in the coming decades, although many analysts believe U.S. budget constraints and deficits will reduce that number.

Australia, a close American ally, is considering doubling its fleet of 24 Boeing Co F/A-18 Super Hornets amid delays and setbacks in the F-35 project. That means Canberra could buy far fewer F-35s than initially planned.

LEAKS

Bogdan was also critical of what he suggested were leaks from Pratt & Whitney's camp about the engine issue, which led the Pentagon to suspend F-35 flights last Friday.

Two sources told Reuters that Pratt & Whitney is 99 percent sure the fan blade problem that grounded the jets was not caused by high-cycle fatigue, which could force a costly design change, and the aircraft could be flying again within the week.

"Until all those tests are done and I see the results, I don't know what's going on," Bogdan said. "However ... my gut would tell me it's on the spectrum of the minor side - 99 percent is bold, flying next week is bold."

Bogdan also gave the example of taking six months to close a deal with Pratt & Whitney for engines on its fifth bloc of jets, shortly after General Electric Co had been dropped as a second supplier of engines for the program, leaving Pratt & Whitney as sole supplier for the next 40 years.

"Now, you would think a company like Pratt & Whitney that was just given the greatest Christmas gift you could ever, ever get for a company would act a little differently," Bogdan said.

Bogdan is flying back to the United States this weekend, just in time to hear about the future of U.S. military budgets, which are slated to be cut by nearly $500 billion over the next decade, an amount which could double unless Congress acts in the next week to avert spending reductions known as "sequestration".

Bogdan said he was confident the F-35 program would remain on track and on budget if he was given the discretion to deal with any cuts.

The risk is that money is cut from the $6 billion set aside for the development program by the end of October next year.

"I need every penny of that $6 billion to get over the finish line," Bogdan said. "If they take money out of development something's going to have to give. I'm either going to have to push the program out or I'm going to have to shed capability."

Budget cuts aside, Bogdan said he was confident of bringing the cost of each plane down to around $90 million by 2013, compared to around $120 million now.

Budget cuts have already forced Italy to scale back its F-35 orders, and Turkey has delayed its purchases by two years. Orders from Japan and Israel have buoyed the project, and additional Israeli orders are expected in 2013.

Lockheed is building three different models of the F-35 for the U.S. military and eight countries that helped pay for its development: Britain, Canada, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia and Norway.

(Editing by Dean Yates)

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