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FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Marine Corps version of Lockheed Martin's F35 Joint Strike Fighter, F-35B test aircraft BF-2 flies with external weapons for the first time over the Atlantic test range at Patuxent River Naval Air Systems Command in Maryland in a February 22, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Lockheed Martin/Handout(reuters_tickers)
BERLIN (Reuters) - The United States and seven allies have held their first meeting to map out plans for joint operations of the new Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealth jet fighter in Europe in coming years.
The two-day gathering in Germany this week included officials from Denmark, Israel, Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey and Britain - all of which are buying the F-35, according to U.S. Air Force and Pentagon officials.
Several other European countries, including Belgium, Finland and Switzerland, are looking at possible orders of the aircraft at a time when tensions between NATO and Russia have increased.
Officials from Lockheed, the largest U.S. weapons maker, gave officials an update on the $379 billion programme, the Pentagon's costliest arms project, as allies in Europe move toward increased use of the jets in coming years, they said.
"We've come together as a team of allies and partners to begin to set the conditions on ... operating the F-35 in the European theatre," Major General Timothy Fay, deputy commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said in a statement.
Italy, which participated in the meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, was the first nation to fly the new fighter outside the United States, and already has three jets in Italy.
Norway will have jets in country by the end of the year, Israel already has five on hand, and Britain will have jets flying in Europe next year, according to a Pentagon spokesman for the F-35 programme. Several Dutch jets are participating in testing in the United States, he said.
Turkey's first aircraft is still being built, and Denmark last year decided to buy 27 jets in coming years.
Air Force General Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said the F-35 was a "force multiplier" and "game changer for missile defence".
Wolters urged military leaders to codify common tactics, techniques and procedures to prepare for joint use of the aircraft in Europe, which will mark the first time that U.S. allies are flying stealth aircraft.
Officials will meet again in October to address issues such as operations, maintenance, logistics and intelligence.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Mark Heinrich)