WASHINGTON - Strong demand from Gulf countries for Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet has prompted Washington to grapple with the thorny question about releasing the jet to the region sooner than expected, a senior US defence official said.
Washington has already approved sales of the new stealth fighter to a range of allies, including Turkey, South Korea, Japan and Israel, but sales to the Gulf require a deeper review given US policy guidelines that call for Israel to maintain a qualitative military edge in the Middle East.
Talk about selling the plane to the United Arab Emirates and other US allies in the Gulf came into the open during the Dubai air show last month, with potential buyers weighing whether to buy existing planes or wait for the US government to release the new radar-evading F-35.
Government officials and industry experts have said they do not expect Washington to allow the sale of the F-35 to Gulf countries until around 2020, just short of five years after Israel receives its first F-35 fighters in 2016.
The senior US official said the depth of interest in the new fighter - the Pentagon's most expensive weapons programme - from Gulf countries came as a surprise to some in the US government.
"We in the Defence Department now recognise that there is significant interest there," said the official, who was not authorised to speak publicly. "We knew eventually we were going to have to face that question, but it's come upon us a little sooner than we thought and we're going to have to deal with it."
Decisions about releasing sensitive technologies for sale to foreign countries are made by the State Department in consultation with the Pentagon and other government agencies.
"Eventually we're going to have to make a decision. We have a very structured process in place for doing that. And it takes a little bit of time," said the official. "But we are going to have to make decisions on a tighter timeline than we thought."