* Software, production issues could slow deliveries
* Air Force could upgrade F-16s to cover any fighter gap (adds Lockheed statement, paragraph 9)
WASHINGTON, Nov 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force’s top general said on Tuesday he was concerned software development and production issues could delay the service’s plan to start using new F-35 fighter jets in April 2016.
General Norton Schwartz said the Air Force variant of the Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) fighter jet was doing better in testing and development than the Navy and Marine Corps’ versions, but it was not clear whether software issues would delay the start of their use in combat.
Vice Admiral David Venlet, the defense official in charge of the F-35 program, briefed Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter and other senior defense officials at a three-hour meeting on Monday about the preliminary findings of his months-long comprehensive review of the program.
The Pentagon earlier this year restructured the $382 billion fighter program, adding 13 months to the development phase. Venlet’s review is pointing to a further possible delay of up to three years and added costs of up to $5 billion, sources familiar with the program said earlier this month.
Schwartz, speaking at a defense writers breakfast, said he had not attended the Monday F-35 review and said another high-level meeting would be scheduled to finalize plans for the program as part of the fiscal 2012 budget process.
He said the Air Force variant of the new radar-evading fighter was ahead of schedule in terms of testing and flying hours, was reporting good software stability and had experienced no structural failures or problems.
But there were lingering software and production issues, he added, noting that the Air Force was waiting for news from Venlet about whether that would postpone the April 2016 date for the Air Force to begin fielding the new fighters.
“I’m still concerned on schedule primarily,” he said. “Software appears to be a potential pacing item here and that has me concerned in terms of deliveries.”
Lockheed spokesman John Kent said the company was bringing in more software engineers and adding a new test line to accelerate work on the F-35’s complicated software system, which involves over 8 million lines of code on board the new plane, and 20 million lines for the overall program.
Sources familiar with the program earlier this month said the need for additional testing would add up to a year to the development program for the Air Force and Navy versions of the plane, and up to three years to the Marine Corps’ version.
Schwartz said the Air Force would examine the need to upgrade its existing F-16 fighters through structural modifications, and radar and avionics improvements, if the F-35 fighter wound up being delayed.
Asked if such moves would siphon off needed funding from the F-35 program, Schwartz said: “If the airplanes are not ready to put on the ramp, we’ll work alternatives. It’s not the preferred solution to be sure, but we’ll do what’s required.”
Joe Dellavedova, spokesman for the F-35 program office, said Monday’s meeting was not intended to come to any decisions about the program. He said another meeting of the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board would be scheduled in coming weeks.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said on Tuesday no date for that meeting has yet been set. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Gunna Dickson)