WASHINGTON, March 30 (Reuters) - The Pentagon is focused on resolving complex software issues on the new Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet, even as it struggles to drive down costs, a top Pentagon official said on Friday, noting that software failures could "bring us to our knees."
Air Force Major General John Thompson, the No. 2 official in charge of the huge multi-nation warplane development program, said the latest restructuring of the program had given officials enough resources and time to address future challenges.
"Both the hardware and the software issues that we're addressing are all within the realm of being resolved," Thompson told reporters on Friday, noting that Pentagon plans to postpone orders for 179 for five years would allow more time for development before production shifts into high gear in 2019.
He said the F-35 program office, the military services, and Lockheed were working together to reduce costs.
The Pentagon told lawmakers on Thursday that the projected cost to develop, build, operate and maintain the plane for 55 years rose by 8.6 percent to $1.51 trillion from $1.38 trillion in the latest Pentagon estimate.
Thompson said the program was also stepping up work on the 24 million lines of code needed to fly and operate the new warplane and associated ground-based equipment, such as simulators, Thompson said.
"The complexity there gives us pause," he said. "We know we can go fix the mechanical engineering issues associated with structural problems. We're very confident in that. But in terms of fusing together that many lines of code into actual warfighting capability, we realize that could bring us to our knees if it doesn't work."
The Defense Department singled out software development as one of its key concerns about the F-35 in Thursday's report.
The new fighter requires nearly 10 million lines of code on board the jet, to integrate the complex sensors, electronic warfare and onboard imagery equipment that will give it far more capability than earlier fighter jets. That is about twice as much software as used on the other stealthy fighter, the F-22.
In its latest report, the Pentagon said challenges with the integration of Block 1B and 2A software were slowing delivery of the next iteration. It said the latest restructuring had added a cushion if additional problems arose during the Block 2 and Block 3 development process.
The program was also continuing work on mitigation strategies and trying to make more pro-active decisions about software development challenges, it said.
The Pentagon's chief weapons tester, Michael Gilmore, also raised concerns about F-35 software development in his annual report, noting that the program office had thus far approved use of just four of 28 needed models and simulations for the jet.
Lockheed concedes that its software development efforts are running about three months behind schedule, but says flight tests demonstrate that the software is working as developed.
The company has invested an additional $150 million to build more laboratories to implement and test the software, and hired 200 additional software engineers, said Steve O'Bryan, vice president for business development.
"We recognize that it is a challenge and we're putting resources toward it," he told Reuters on Thursday.
Lockheed is developing three variants of the new plane for the U.S. military and eight partner countries - Britain, Canada, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. The partners now plan to buy a combined total of 697 planes, down from 730 in the previous Pentagon estimate.
Thompson declined comment on ongoing negotiations between Lockheed and the Pentagon to finalize a production contract for a fifth batch of jets, but said his office was trying to get the talks wrapped up as soon as possible.