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UPDATE 1-BAE Systems' earnings grow on operational improvements

By Paul Sandle

(Adds CEO comments, shares)

By Paul Sandle

LONDON, July 31 (Reuters) - BAE Systems said improvements in its maritime and combat vehicle operations helped drive a rise in first-half earnings against a backdrop of geopolitical uncertainty that has dampened hopes for a major order from Saudi Arabia.

Britain's biggest defence company said on Wednesday it was sticking to a forecast for a mid-single digit rise in full-year earnings per share on 2018's 42.9 pence, underpinned by an improved operational performance and a slightly lower tax rate.

Chief Executive Charles Woodburn said that focusing on improving the performance of programmes like combat vehicle production, was his number one priority.

"The UK maritime sector is an area where we've seen some particular improvements, electronic systems in the U.S. continues to perform very strongly," he told reporters.

"I said last year that we were having some challenges ramping some of the combat vehicle programmes in the U.S. and whilst we are making progress there that is still a huge area of focus for us."

The maker of Typhoon fighters, combat vehicles and Astute Class nuclear-powered attack submarines, has been affected by a German ban on exporting arms to Saudi Arabia imposed after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October.

Woodburn said BAE had been "working closely with industry partners and the government to continue to fulfill our contractual support arrangements" with Saudi Arabia.

The export ban has put a question mark over a multi-billion pound deal to sell 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Riyadh, built by a BAE-led consortium that also includes MTU Aero Engines and Airbus.

BAE reported a 9% rise in first-half earnings to 999 million pounds ($1.22 billion) on sales up 4% on a constant currency basis to 9.4 billion pounds.

The company increased its interim dividend by just over 4% to 9.4 pence a share.

Shares in the company were trading up 2% at 553 pence at 1231 GMT.

Analysts at Deutsche Bank, who have a 690 pence a share target price, said BAE Systems' 8.8 times 2021 enterprise value to earnings multiple looked undemanding.

"While we acknowledge that a number of uncertainties remain for BAE - challenges on arms sales to Saudi, potential change in UK government - we view these to be already priced in," they said.

($1 = 0.8206 pounds)

(Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Edmund Blair)