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U.S. Navy to order 33 fewer F-35s than planned in next 5 yrs -source

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy is set to order 33 fewer Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets than originally planned over the five years starting in fiscal 2015 due to budgetary pressures, a defense official said Monday.

In a move that will sharply slow work on the F-35 model built to land on aircraft carriers, the Navy will ask Congress to fund 36 F-35Cs instead of 69, said the official, who could not speak publicly ahead of Tuesday's release of the 2015 budget request.

The Air Force is also deferring orders for four conventional landing F-35 A-models in fiscal 2015, but is expected to resume its planned orders for the jet in 2016 and beyond, said a second source familiar with the plans. It plans to order 238 in total.

The Marine Corps, which expects to start using its F-35 B-model jets in combat from mid-2015, is sticking to its projected orders of 69 jets for the period, the sources said.

That adds up to 343 F-35s to be funded by the U.S. military through fiscal 2019, excluding three Marine Corps jets that could be added to the Pentagon's war funding request, which will be submitted in April or May.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told a conference last week that the department's decision to buy eight fewer F-35s in fiscal 2015 was based on affordability, not the aircraft's performance. Defense officials say they remain committed to the program, and still plan to buy a total of 2,443 F-35s over the coming years for all three military services.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week said the total number to be funded over the next five years could be scaled back further unless Congress revokes automatic budget cuts that are due to resume in fiscal 2016 and beyond.

Lockheed is building three models of the aircraft for the U.S. military and eight international partners that helped fund its development: Britain, Canada, Norway, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia.

Israel and Japan have also ordered F-35 jets, and South Korea is expected to announce orders for 40 F-35s on March 12.

Lockheed and the Pentagon's F-35 program office had hoped that foreign orders would comprise half or more of the total number of F-35s in a ninth batch of jets, which are funded in fiscal 2015.

However some foreign orders have now been delayed as well and the combined number is expected to be around 57, far short of 73 jets that had been seen as possible at one time, said a third source familiar with the program. The total number will be finalized in the coming months.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

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