EXCLUSIVE-Pentagon stops accepting F-35 jets from Lockheed over repair cost dispute

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WASHINGTON, April 11 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Defense has stopped accepting most deliveries of F-35 jets from Lockheed Martin Corp because of a dispute over who will cover costs for fixing a production error found last year on more than 200 of the stealthy jets, three people familiar with the matter said.

Last year the Pentagon stopped accepting F-35s for 30 days after discovering corrosion where the carbon fiber exterior panels of the planes were fastened to the airframe.

Once a fix had been devised, the deliveries resumed, and Lockheed hit its target aircraft delivery numbers for 2017.

But deliveries have been paused again over a dispute as to who will pay for what will likely be a complex logistical fix that could require technicians to travel widely to mend aircraft based around the world, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Lockheed spokeswoman said: "Production on the F-35 program continues and we are confident we will meet our delivery target of 91 aircraft for 2018. While all work in our factories remains active, the F-35 Joint Program Office has temporarily suspended accepting aircraft until we reach an agreement on a contractual issue and we expect this to be resolved soon."

It was not clear when the suspension of deliveries began.

Two jets were received by the Pentagon despite the suspension because of specific needs in the field, one of the people said.

This is the latest of several production issues that have arisen in the 17-year history of the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program. In 2016, a fix for insulation problems in the fuel tanks and lines of the jets caused a slowdown in deliveries.

During routine maintenance at Hill Air Force Base in Utah last year, the Air Force detected "corrosion exceeding technical limits" where the carbon fiber exterior panel is fastened to the aluminum airframe. A lack of protective coating at the fastening point that would have prevented corrosion was identified as the primary problem, the Pentagon said at the time. (Reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by Chris Sanders and Rosalba O'Brien)