HELSINKI (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin is a year ahead of schedule with its plan to cut the cost of its F-35 A fighter jet variant to $80 million by 2020, the U.S. company said on Thursday.
"We have beaten the goal by a full year," Lockheed Martin campaign manager Mark Pranke told a news conference in Helsinki, where the company is seeking a deal worth an estimated 7-10 billion euros ($7.9-11.3 billion) to replace Finland's ageing 64 Hornet fighter jets.
Finland's new centre-left government said last week it would pick new fighter jets in 2021 from five shortlisted options, including U.S.-based Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet, French firm Dassault's Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Swedish firm Saab's Jas Gripen, as well as the F-35.
The new jets are considered crucial for the defence capability of the Nordic country, which shares an 833-mile (1,340 km) border and a difficult history with Russia but has opted to stay out of NATO.
However, their purchase is also a costly move for the small nation, representing about 15% of the government's annual budget of 55.5 billion euros ($62.7 billion) in 2019.
Lockheed Martin's cost cutting could make its F-35s a more affordable option, but Pranke stressed there were factors other than price to be considered, such as the aircraft's stealth capability, allowing it to evade radar detection.
"In this environment in Finland, where you have threats just across the border, it's not enough just to have an aircraft that meets the price," Pranke told Reuters.
Finland's choice is also about the deal's impact on defence cooperation, which could favour Sweden's Jas Gripen.
Finland has kept the door open to joining the NATO but is unlikely to do so in the near future, with the centre-left government and public opinion against such move.
In its government programme, the centre-left government led by Social Democratic Prime Minister Antti Rinne highlighted the importance of cooperation with neighbouring Sweden.
"Closer defence cooperation between Finland and Sweden, which are militarily non-allied states, offers special opportunities for strengthening the two countries' defence", it said.
($1 = 0.8848 euros)
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen; Editing by Jane Merriman and Mark Potter)