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By Andrea Shalal
BERLIN (Reuters) - The U.S. military said it still sees prospects for selling American fighter jets to Germany despite a Defence Ministry statement this week that it was primarily looking at the Eurofighter Typhoon to replace its fleet of 85 Tornado jets.
The ministry on Monday distanced itself from comments by Air Force Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Karl Muellner, who had made clear last month that he preferred the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter, given military requirements for stealth and long-distance strike capabilities.
The ministry said it did not share his view, and was looking first at the European option, and secondarily at three U.S. fighter jets. But it made clear that no decisions would be made until after a comprehensive assessment of all options.
Washington must respond by March 31 to the German ministry's formal request for information about the F-35 and two fighter jets built by Boeing Co, the F-15 and the F/A-18E/F. It has also sought similar information about the Eurofighter.
The ministry said the replies would inform its evaluation of possible successors for its Tornado fleet, which is due to start leaving service around 2030. It said the process could "potentially (result) in a request for proposal and possible procurement over the next decade."
One U.S. military official said the process was just getting started. "The United States is confident that there are U.S. platforms that would be competitive," the official said.
U.S. law requires Washington to equally represent all potential U.S. bids in foreign competitions.
Lockheed, which has launched a big lobbying push in Germany, including offering F-35 simulator rides for ministry officials and lawmakers last month, said its aircraft offered "the proven capability" to fulfill the German air force's requirements.
Lockheed also featured a large photo montage at the Berlin Security Conference that showed an F-35 flying over Berlin.
"We anticipate an open and fair competition," said Lockheed spokesman Eric Schnaible. "We're confident the F-35 is the best value for NATO's air forces now and for credible deterrence well into the future."
No comment was immediately available from Boeing.
U.S. officials briefed German officials on the capabilities of the Boeing aircraft last month, following a similar briefing on the Lockheed jet in July.
Airbus, which represents Germany and Spain in the maturing Eurofighter programme, declined to comment on the letter.
"Generally, we view the Eurofighter as the ideal solution to take over the missions of the Tornado since it has already been introduced in the German military and would also guarantee the sovereignty of German missions," an Airbus spokesman said.
The Eurofighter programme, which also includes Britain through BAE Systems and Italy via Leonardo, has already provided the German military with a study about ways to further develop the aircraft, and expand its capabilities.
One key issue may be Germany's need to provide NATO with aircraft to carry the primary U.S. nuclear bombs, the B61s stored at a high-security military base in western Germany.
The Eurofighter would have to be adapted to carry the bombs and then certified, and Washington would have to sign off on the matter. The F-15 is already approved to carry the bombs, and the F-35 is due to get the capability in the early 2020s.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Editing by William Maclean)