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U.S. sees Australia decision on F/A-18 jets by summer

Crew members work on the cockpit of a F/A-18C fighter jet on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN76) in Hong Kong August 12, 2011. REUTERS
Crew members work on the cockpit of a F/A-18C fighter jet on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN76) in Hong Kong August 12, 2011. REUTERS

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Maryland (Reuters) - Australia is expected to decide on the purchase of up to 24 additional Boeing Co F/A-18 fighter jets by late spring or early summer, according to the U.S. Navy captain who runs the foreign fighter jet sales program on behalf of the Pentagon.

A number of buyers in Asia and the Middle East remain interested in the warplane, and the Navy is also staying in "pretty close touch" with Brazil, said Captain Frank Morley, program manager for the F/A-18 Hornet, Super Hornet and Growler electronic attack versions of the plane.

Boeing is trying to boost its fighter jet sales to the U.S. military and eight foreign partners, including Australia, as rival Lockheed Martin Corp struggles with repeated schedule delays and cost increases on its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

"Any foreign military sales customer at this point aids in keeping the (Boeing F/A-18) line open. It allows the entire machine to keep working (and) for long lead material to be procured," Morley told Reuters in an interview at his office at Naval Air Station Paxutent River in southern Maryland.

While U.S. purchases themselves will keep Boeing's F/A-18 production line running through late 2015 and possibly into 2016, any foreign military sales would extend the line and keep more options open for the U.S. military and its allies, he said.

Any additional Australian purchases of Boeing F/A-18s may eat into its initial plan to buy 100 Lockheed F-35s. Other countries are also rethinking their F-35 purchases.

Lockheed beat out Boeing to win the JSF contract in 2001, but the program is seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over initial cost estimates.

The Pentagon notified Congress in February about the possible sale of up to 24 more F/A-18 jets to Australia in a deal valued at up to $3.7 billion, but Australia is still deciding whether to buy 12 or 24 planes, Morley said.

Even a purchase of 12 planes would extend the production line well into 2016, he said.

BRAZIL

Brazil, meanwhile, is weighing bids for a $4 billion fighter competition from Boeing, France's Dassault Aviation and Sweden's Saab , a process that has dragged on for more than a decade through three Brazilian governments.

Brazil's Air Force last month asked bidders to renew their offers for another six months, delaying a contract award once again.

Boeing has invested heavily in Brazil over the past year and also agreed a series of partnerships with Brazilian planemaker Embraer SA, which may boost the F/A-18's odds in the tender, according to two senior Brazilian officials.

Morley said the Pentagon and U.S. officials were also in touch with a number of countries in the Middle East and Asia, where weapons spending is growing even as it tapers off in Europe and the United States.

He declined to name the countries or say how many foreign orders were possible in coming years. Analysts say Malaysia and Kuwait may be the most likely new F/A-18 E/F buyers.

Morley said most of the prospective additional buyers were looking at orders ranging from 18 to 48 jets. He said some countries had already sought demonstrations of the F/A-18 jets.

Keen to engage with possible buyers, Boeing and the Navy's F/A-18 program sent jets to the Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition in Malaysia last month, and may participate in the Dubai air show in November, Morley said.

Morley said the F/A-18 program office would send initial information about the jet to Canada this month, but it was unclear if they planned to launch a formal competition.

(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Ryan Woo)

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