By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet is making good progress as it nears initial combat use by the U.S. Marine Corps in July 2015, but the company must still finalize the software needed to deliver weapons and fuse data from its many sensors, the Pentagon's F-35 program chief told Reuters.
"Getting to 2015 there's a whole lot of things that have to be put in place, not the least of which is the software on the program," said Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the Air Force three-star general who took over the helm of the $392 billion F-35 program around one year ago.
Software was the program's No.1 critical issue, he said, noting that the jet alone had more than 8.5 million lines of code, while its related systems had 11 or 12 million more.
Officials have also launched an "earnest effort" to ensure that planes already built for the Air Force and Marine Corps are modified to adjust for issues found in flight testing so they are ready for initial combat use, Bogdan said.
The Air Force has said it plans to start using its conventional takeoff F-35 jets from mid-2016. The Navy will follow suit in late 2018.
Lockheed is building three models of the radar-evading warplane for the U.S. military and eight countries that helped fund its development: Britain, Canada, Norway, Australia, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark. Japan and Israel have also ordered F-35 jets.
Bogdan told a defense logistics conference on Wednesday that the Pentagon's biggest weapons program - which is years behind schedule and 70 percent over initial cost estimates - had a "tragic past," but was now making good progress.
Bogdan said it was time to take "that baggage from the past and put it aside and judge the program where it is today."
He said Lockheed is on track to deliver 36 jets this year, and the cost of the plane was coming down year after year. Flight testing was about 60 days behind schedule after two separate groundings early this year, but the delay could be absorbed by the margin built into the development program.
At Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on Wednesday, the program hit a new single-day record of F-35 flights, flying 45 training missions with all three models of the new jet, said Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the F-35 program office.
The total included 32 flights with the Marine Corp's B-model, which can land like a helicopter, 10 flights with the conventional A-model, and three flights with the Navy's C-model, designed to land on aircraft carriers. In addition, one Dutch F-35 returned to Eglin from Maryland.
In an interview after his speech, Bogdan rejected criticism that the Pentagon is plowing ahead blindly with a program that is too complex and expensive. He said the government knows "an awful lot" about the airplane and its cost and is doing better holding its manufacturers accountable for their performance.
Bogdan said critics of the F-35 focused on the program's delays and technical shortfalls, but the U.S. military and its allies were growing more confident in the plane every day.
He said there was growing international interest in the new stealth fighter, and South Korea, Singapore and other countries could place orders in coming years. Such orders were good for all the countries involved because they would drive down the cost of each airplane and associated infrastructure, he said.
By some measure, including the F-35's ability to maneuver tight turns, the F-35 is on par or even slightly below that of current fighter planes, Bogdan said.
But the plane's ability to combine data from a host of different sensors and share it with other aircraft made it "a vastly superior airplane" than current warplanes, he said.
"What makes the airplane leaps and bounds better than legacy airplanes," he said, "is the ability to know what's going on around it when it comes to other airplanes and other threats, and its ability to take that information and give the pilot a very clear picture and then give that picture to a lot of other people who don't have the sophisticated sensors that we have."
He declined to give details since some of those attributes are classified, but said testing of the software that would provide the "360-degree situational awareness" was going well.
"Some of that stuff is in the classified realm, so people don't understand it and we can't talk freely about it," he said. "Until we get out there and prove that, people are going to be naturally hesitant because that is a leap above what we have today. It makes everybody in the battlespace smarter."
Bogdan said relations between the government and the prime contractors on the program - Lockheed and engine maker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp - had improved sharply since he became deputy director in July 2012.
Just over a year ago, Bogdan described that relationship as the "worst" he had ever seen in decades of working on acquisition programs.
Since then, the Pentagon had dramatically increased its oversight of the program and had become far more vigilant about holding the companies that build it accountable, he said.
But the F-35 program office and the contractors also communicate more often and more openly than before, he said.
"What we embarked on over the last 18 months is constant...'straight talk' with our contractor and our stakeholders," he said, noting that he had spoken three times on Wednesday alone with Lockheed's F-35 program manager, Lorraine Martin. "The communication between the program office and them is much more constructive now than destructive."
"The more we talk and the more we communicate, the more we understand each other's position, we can get past the blame game and get on to finding solutions for things," he said.
Bogdan said the Navy version of the new fighter was also making progress and testing of a redesigned tail hook that allows the plane to land on aircraft carriers would begin in coming months after completion of a critical design review.
(Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Matt Driskill)