Iraq to buy 18 more Lockheed F-16 fighters

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth will keep building F-16s for at least four more years, thanks to an $830 million contract announced late Tuesday to supply 18 of the highly successful jet fighters to Iraq.

It is the second group of F-16s for Iraq, which ordered 18 in December 2011. At that time the Pentagon had said it planned another batch for Iraq but had not said when that might happen.

The orders are part of Iraq's efforts to rebuild its air force a decade after the U.S. invasion of the country to topple Saddam Hussein. The purchase price includes support equipment and electronic warfare systems.

Lockheed spokesman Ken Ross said the latest order should keep the Fort Worth F-16 production line busy through mid-2017. As of March 31, Lockheed had said it had 40 unfilled F-16 orders, which the company said previously was enough to keep the program busy into 2015.

The 2017 estimate doesn't include the potential impact of selling 25 F-16s to the United Arab Emirates, a pending deal that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed with the Persian Gulf state's leaders last week. Foreign military sales are negotiated between the federal government and the foreign buyer before they are placed with the contractor.

Ross said about 200 production workers currently work on the F-16 line. The company no longer provides a total head count that would have included engineers and other technical personnel on the F-16 program, which last year was combined with the company's F-22 program.

Iraq's order is the latest in a continuing string of orders for the feisty aircraft, which saw its 4,500th delivery last year.

The first F-16 rolled off the Fort Worth production line in 1978. About half are flown by U.S. forces, and about half by more than two dozen other nations.

Just days after the 2011 order for Iraq, Oman ordered a dozen F-16s. And in October 2012, Taiwan placed an order worth up to $1.85 billion to upgrade its aging fleet of 145 F-16s.

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