By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Norway's defense minister on Thursday said the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter program is on the right track after a major restructuring in 2010, with the cost of the new stealth warplane coming down and most technical issues solved.
But Ine Eriksen Søreide, who became defense minister in October, told Reuters that Norway was keeping a close eye on the program's costs, software development, prospects for industrial participation by Norwegian industry, and how the planes will be serviced once they are delivered to Europe.
"We have concluded that these planes are the best ones for us. There is nothing in the development over the past couple of years that has shaken that decision," she said. "At the same time, it's a huge investment and it's definitely also something that will have consequences for the rest of our armed forces."
Norway is one of eight countries that helped the United States develop the new radar-evading warplane. Norway has ordered 16 of the 52 jets it plans to buy in coming years, with the first jets to be delivered in 2017, a year earlier than planned, Soreide told Reuters during a visit to Washington.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the Pentagon's costliest arms program. The U.S. military plans to spend $392 billion to develop the plane and buy 2,443 jets for the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy over coming decades, although many analysts expect that number to decline amid budget cuts.
Soreide said she hoped that the United States and the other countries developing the F-35 would decide to adopt Norway's Joint Strike Missile for use on later versions of the plane.
She said a decision should be made over the next year to 18 months about integration of the missile, which the Norwegian government and its lawmakers hope will give Norwegian firms a bigger stake in the overall F-35 program.
Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, the F-35 program chief, told Soreide during a meeting on Thursday that Norway was making good progress on developing and testing the missile, and it could be among the first partner-developed weapons to be integrated into the plane, spokesman Joe DellaVedova said.
He said a decision on whether to adopt the Norwegian missile for the jet would be made by the United States, Norway and the other partners on the program: Britain, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Denmark, Canada and the Netherlands.
Soreide said most of the technical issues facing the F-35 had been or were being solved, but additional problems could arise in software and other areas as the new warplane wraps up development and testing.
She said the program also needed to work out plans for maintaining and repairing the planes on a regional basis once they were delivered. Britain and Norway have signed an agreement to work on servicing the planes together, but are still working out the details, she said.
"We can't depend on going to the United States each time to sustain the planes," she said. "If this is not in place, many partners will have trouble phasing in the new planes."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-; Editing by Leslie AdlerEsa)