WASHINGTON, May 21 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is concerned that a squadron of F-35 fighter jets scheduled for combat in August 2016 will face delays in getting some capabilities that are expected to be delivered in a 2018 software package, a two-star Air Force general said Thursday.
Major General Jeffrey Harrigian, who oversees the F-35 program for the Air Force, said he would meet with officials from Lockheed Martin Corp and the Pentagon’s F-35 program office in several weeks to discuss ways to mitigate against any delays.
The squadron would be 12 to 14 F-35 fighter jets.
U.S. officials say the $391 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program, has turned the corner after years of cost overruns and schedule delays. Critics say the new jets’ capabilities will be limited in the early years of operation despite the huge investment.
Harrigian told an event hosted by the Mitchell Institute think tank that the Air Force was keen to ensure that everything promised in the Block 3F software due in 2018 was delivered as promised, and that no capabilities were delayed.
He said issues had arisen during development that could affect certain capabilities but declined to comment further since those capabilities are classified.
Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, who runs the F-35 program for the Pentagon, has insisted that Lockheed must deliver the 3F software with its full, promised capability.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has proposed legislation that would restrict some F-35 funding until the Air Force certified that the 3F software would be delivered as promised.
Defense officials said they saw some risks of delays, but the 3F software appeared to be on track for now.
Harrigian said the F-35 program was growing quickly, with the 123 jets now in use in the United States to swell to over 650 jets around the world by 2020.
He said the Air Force was working closely with Marine Corps, which is due to declare a squadron of 10 F-35 B-model jets ready for initial combat use in July.
One key issue for both services is training enough technicians to maintain and repair the stealthy jets.
Harrigian said key issues to work out before the Air Force milestone in 2016 included management of the mission data files required for the jet, training of pilots to carry out certain missions, retrofits required for the 12 to 14 jets in the first squadron and completion of a smaller automated logistics system. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Bernard Orr)