By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon's plans to fund 50 percent more F-35 fighter jets in fiscal 2016 will help drive down the price of the new plane and its engine, a top official with enginemaker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, said Thursday.
Bennett Croswell, president of Pratt's military engines division, said the company had submitted a proposal for the ninth and tenth batches of engines to the F-35 program office, and he hoped to sign those agreements by the end of 2015.
The previous two production agreements lowered the cost of the engine by nearly 8 percent, Croswell said, noting that further reductions were planned for the contracts now under discussion - 60 engines in the ninth batch and 100 in the tenth.
The U.S. government signs separate production agreements with Lockheed Martin Corp, which builds the plane, and Pratt, which builds its F135 engine. The Pentagon plans to spend nearly $400 billion to develop and build 2,457 of the radar-evading warplanes over the next two decades.
Croswell welcomed the start of a long-delayed increase in production of the F-35 in fiscal 2016, which funds 57 jets after 38 a year earlier, and said it would help Pratt, Lockheed and other key suppliers drive down the plane's cost.
Pratt and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, which makes the lift fan for the F-35 B-model, will soon unveil new plans for reducing the cost of the engine, Croswell said. He gave no details.
Lockheed and the other key suppliers for the airframe - Northrop Grumman Corp and BAE Systems Plc -launched a similar effort last summer, which maps out specific investments to reduce the cost to build and repair the planes.
Croswell said Pratt had also developed plans to upgrade the F135 engine in two separate phases.
If the Pentagon accepts and funds the plans, the first upgrades would begin in 2017 or 2018 and reduce the fuel burn of the engine by 5 to 7 percent, Croswell said. The next upgrades would begin around 2022, cutting fuel burn by 15 to 20 percent.
The upgrades drew on engine research work funded by the Air Force in recent years, he said. The service included funding for more work on a next-generation engine in its 2016 budget plan.
Croswell said Pratt was preparing for the production increase by hiring more people, and it had already opened a second production site in West Palm Beach, Florida.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)