WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp has won a U.S. contract worth $490 million to start buying parts, material and components for a seventh batch of 35 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes, the Pentagon announced on Friday.
Lockheed, the Pentagon's largest supplier, welcomed the agreement and said it would help ensure that the $396 billion F-35 program, which has been restructured three times in recent years, continued to meet its production schedules.
"This is an important milestone in paving the way for the acquisition of these aircraft," said Lockheed spokeswoman Laurie Quincy.
News of the order came as Lockheed continued to hire temporary workers to maintain F-35 production at its plant in Fort Worth, Texas, where 3,300 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers have been on strike for eight weeks over pension and healthcare benefits.
The U.S. Department of Defense said the order would include 19 conventional takeoff and landing or "A" models for the U.S. Air Force; three F-35A models for the government of Italy; two F-35As for Turkey; six short takeoff, vertical landing or F-35B aircraft for the U.S. Marine Corps; one F-35B for Britain, and four carrier variant aircraft for the Navy.
In addition, this contract provides long lead-time efforts required for the incorporation of a drag chute in conventional takeoff air systems for the government of Norway.
Lockheed remains locked in difficult negotiations with the Pentagon to finalize the details of a fifth order of 32 low-rate production planes.
Earlier Friday, Norway placed its first firm order for two F-35 aircraft and said it expects to order another 50 planes for a total procurement cost of $10 billion, the country's largest ever public purchase.
Norway, which has stood firmly by the program and its order, will receive its first four aircraft by 2016. The remaining 48 would be delivered after 2017.
Norway said it would also begin preparations for the final phase of Joint Strike Missile development after it received U.S. support for the integration of the missile into the F-35.
Lockheed is developing three variants of the F-35 for the U.S. military and eight partner countries, including Britain, Canada, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.
The U.S. military plans to buy 2,443 aircraft while the program's international partners plan to buy 697.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Additional reporting by Balazs Koranyi in Oslo; Editing by Gary Hill)