By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and eight other countries helping to develop the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter underscored their full and continued support for the program, according to two sources who attended a gathering hosted by Canada.
Despite U.S. plans to put off orders for 179 planes over the next five years and a steady drip of news about technical problems and developmental issues, a statement issued by Canada on Friday cited "good progress" on the program.
Julian Fantino, Canada's associate minister of National Defence, hosted a dinner on Thursday and all-day meeting at his country's embassy in Washington, D.C. on Friday to facilitate better communication among political officials from all nine partner countries.
"While good progress continues to be made, we will always be vigilant with our stewardship of taxpayers' hard earned dollars," he said in a statement, underscoring Canada's determination to stick to its budget for replacing its aging fleet of F-18 fighter jets.
He said the program had already resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts for Canadian firms.
The two sources said all nine countries underscored their full and continued support for what one described as the "backbone of allied defense in the free world".
Lockheed Martin Corp is developing three variants of the radar-evading, supersonic fighter jet for the United States and eight countries -- Canada, Britain, Australia, Turkey, Denmark, Norway, Italy and the Netherlands.
Senior U.S. officials sought to reassure the partner countries that Washington remains committed to the multinational fighter development program.
The slowdown in U.S. orders and budget pressures at home have prompted some of the international partners to rethink their own orders. Italy last month cut its planned buy of 131 planes by 30 percent.
"Our support of this program is clear," said Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Melinda Morgan.
Navy Vice Admiral David Venlet, the official who manages the Pentagon's costliest weapons program, and acting acquisition chief Frank Kendall gave updates about development milestones and testing of the new warplane at the meeting, as did officials from Lockheed.
Fantino organized the meeting to facilitate greater collaboration among political officials from the nine countries funding the plane's development -- the first time so many countries have worked together to design and build a new plane.
In the past, the Pentagon has provided updates to senior leaders from the partner countries only on a bilateral basis. But military officials from the nine countries already meet twice a year for review sessions. The next military-level meeting is slated to take place March 14-15 in Australia.
Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the F-35 program office, said the partner countries agreed to have their political officials make the meeting an annual event.
"The multinational Joint Strike Fighter Program represents a new model for international cooperation," the Canadian statement said, adding that the partners agreed that "multilateral updates add purpose over bilateral discussions and updates."
Fantino, a member of Canada's Conservative-led government, is under pressure from the NDP opposition party to hold an open and transparent competition for the new warplanes before making firm commitments to buy 65 of the new F-35 fighter jets.
"The Conservatives shouldn't be giving a blank cheque to Lockheed Martin before they know the real costs of the F-35s," Matthew Kellway, a member of Canada's parliament and frequent critic of the program, said in a statement.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Additional reporting by Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)