US fighter jet delays 'unfortunate'

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The head of the Norwegian Parliament’s foreign relations and defense committee said Tuesday it would be “unfortunate” if delivery of new fighter jets from the US is further delayed. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is withholding funding for the jets, because of problems with their development.

Norwegian Defense Minister Grete Faremo visited Gates just last week and also paid a call on defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which is producing the new Joint Strike Fighter jets for the US military and eight other countries.

Norway is among the other countries that have ordered the new Joint Strike Fighter F-35 jets, agreeing to pay around NOK 18 billion in one of the biggest contracts in the country’s history. The new jets will replace the current fleet of F-16 jets, and Faremo was full of positive comments after her meetings with Gates in Washington DC and Lockheed Martin officials in Fort Worth, Texas.

“As far as we can see, the progress in the fighter jet program is what can be expected at present, both regarding economics and production,” Faremo stated last week in a press release still featured on the Defense Ministry’s web site on Tuesday. The biggest challenge still remaining, she said, was to firm up an industrial deal that will provide billions worth of subcontracting jobs for Norwegian firms.

On Monday, however, Gates made it clear he wasn’t as pleased with the progress of the Joint Strike Fighter program. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that he’s holding back USD 614 million (NOK 3.5 billion) in payments to Lockheed Martin.

The BBC reported that Gates also has fired the general responsible for the jets’ development and was installing new leadership for the Pentagon department that’s monitoring the fighter jet program.

Gates’ moves came after both contractors and suppliers have failed to meet budgets and deadlines. He said the development “hasn’t been what it should have been” over the past two years.

Faremo has no immediate comment Tuesday morning but Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party, who heads the Parliament’s foreign relations and defense committee, told NRK it was “unfortunate” if the program now faces more delays. A military spokesman said the jets won’t get more expensive, and that “we shall get our jets in 2016, it’s important that we follow this closely.”

Faremo had said last week that her meeting with Gates left her with the impression that US government authorities were paying close attention to Lockheed Martin’s work, “which strengthens our faith in the JSF program.”