By YAAKOV KATZ
While Israel is interested in purchasing the fifth-generation stealth Joint Strike Fighter from Lockheed Martin, it will likely hinge its order on US acceptance of its demand that Israeli defense industries be allowed to participate in the aircraft's production, senior defense officials said Thursday.
On Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and discussed potential Israeli involvement in the production of the JSF, also known as the F-35. In the past, Israeli aerospace companies have been integrated into the production of aircraft purchased by the IAF.
During their meeting, as well as a meeting last week between Defense Ministry director-general Pinhas Buchris and officials from Lockheed Martin, the Israeli officials stressed that they would be reluctant to purchase the aircraft immediately if Israeli companies were kept out of the deal.
Officials said, though, that if the price of the aircraft were reduced from the expected $130 million, Israel would be more willing to compromise in following through with its initial plan to purchase the aircraft in the coming months. If that happens, the JSF will begin arriving in Israel in 2014.
In the coming weeks, officials said, the Defense Ministry will receive an official letter from the Pentagon detailing the price of the aircraft and also finalizing some of the outstanding issues between the sides regarding the integration of Israeli defense suites into the plane, as well as allowing Israel to independently maintain the aircraft without needing to send it to Europe for repairs.
In July, the Defense Ministry submitted an official letter of request to the Pentagon to purchase its first squadron of 25 F-35 stealth fighter jets, but officials have said that the target date for a contract at the beginning of 2010 would likely not be met. As a result, the arrival of the aircraft - initially predicted to begin in 2014 - would likely be postponed by at least one or two years.
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