By Radhika Rukmangadhan and Andrea Shalal
(Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp on Thursday said it would offer a modified version of its T-50 training jet developed jointly with Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd, instead of a newly designed plane, in the upcoming U.S. Air Force competition to build 350 new training planes.
The U.S. Air Force aims to launch the competition in 2017 to replace its ageing fleet of T-38 planes, which are nearly 50 years old, and analysts have said it could eventually buy up to 600 planes.
The competition - which industry sources say could be worth $8 billion to $10 billion for the winning bidder - is expected to be fierce.
Boeing Co has teamed with Sweden's Saab to develop a new plane for the competition, while Textron Inc and Northrop Grumman Corp are designing their own new planes.
Lockheed prepared a detailed proposal for both a high-end and lower-end new design as well, but decided at the end of last year to proceed with a modified T-50, Rob Weiss, who heads the company's famed Skunk Works design shop, told Reuters.
He said the modified training plane would meet the government's needs at eight times less cost and three times quicker than a new design, and with far less risk. Weiss declined to provide any detailed cost data.
Michael Griswold, director of T-50 business development for Lockheed, said company officials concluded they could not meet the Air Force's target of fielding an initial number of new training planes in 2024 with a new design - unless the program was structured to start production before design work was completed, something Air Force officials viewed as unacceptable.
Lockheed, the Pentagon's No. 1 weapons supplier, said it was conducting ground tests of two prototype T-50A aircraft, and would bring them to the United States this summer.
It said it had selected its Greenville operations facility in South Carolina as the preferred final assembly and checkout (FACO) site for the T-50A.
"The T-50A is production ready now," Weiss, executive vice president of Lockheed's Advanced Development Programs, said.
Weiss said the Lockheed manufacturing line in Greenville was nearly complete, and the company could start accepting T-50 orders at the South Carolina plant by the end of the year.
That would allow the Air Force to significantly accelerate its plans to field an "initial operational capability" of new training planes by four or five years, he said.
(Reporting by Arunima Banerjee and Radhika Rukmangadhan in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta, Diane Craft)