By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon's F-35 program office on Friday said it was "laser-focused" on finishing development of the software needed for the U.S. Marine Corps to start using its Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets from mid-2015.
The Pentagon's chief weapons tester warned in a report obtained by Reuters and published on Thursday that a possible 13-month delay in F-35 software development, coupled with maintenance and reliability problems, could delay the Marine Corps' plans.
But Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, who runs the Pentagon's F-35 program office, says he remains confident that Lockheed will complete the Block 2B software that gives the jet its initial combat capability in time.
Bogdan restructured the F-35 program office last year to put a greater emphasis on software, which he considers the No. 1 technical risk to the $392 billion program, said his spokesman Joe DellaVedova.
As part of the changes, he said Bogdan had named a number of people or "czars" to oversee the range of efforts linked to the Block 2B software and later software versions, as well as the drive to reduce the F-35's maintenance and operating costs.
"Lieutenant General Bogdan and the F-35 program are laser- focused on delivering the Block 2B capability to the warfighter," DellaVedova said. "We track and review F-35 software development data religiously and we're confident we'll deliver Block 2B in time to meet the Marine Corps' needs."
Lockheed is developing three models of the new warplane for the U.S. military and eight partners: Britain, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. Israel and Japan have also placed orders.
Marine Corps officials had no immediate comment on the new report, but the service has not revised its plans to declare an F-35 "initial operational capability" by July 2015.
The report, which was delivered to Congress on Friday, got a muted reaction from the countries that helped pay for development of the new plane or placed orders.
Britain is expected to announce orders for 14 F-35 jets and the associated infrastructure, training and maintenance services, as early as next week, Reuters reported on Thursday. [ID:nL5N0KX2M4] It is buying the same short takeoff, vertical landing B-model jets that will be operated by the Marines.
The Dutch, who have ordered 37 planes, said they had not received the report, but did not expect any major surprises.
"The problems raised are well known and are being addressed," said Defense Ministry spokeswoman Sacha Louwhoff.
The Dutch are testing two trial planes and expect delivery of their first production plane in 2019. The first Dutch F-35 pilot completed his training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on Friday, DellaVedova said.
Endre Lunde, spokesman for Norway's defense ministry, said the F-35 program office was already taking steps to fix issues raised by the report, including software development.
"The information presented in this report has been briefed to all international partners at various points over the past year," Lunde said, adding that he did not expect the issues raised to affect Norway's participation in the F-35 program.
At the same time, Lunde said Norway viewed the report as a "very valuable" tool and "an important external reference in our efforts to keep the development of the F-35 on track."
Belgium is also weighing F-35 orders, but will not make a decision until after elections in May, one official said.
In Israel, one defense official said he did not see any problems for his country's order of 19 jets. "There is no delay (for Israel)," said the official, who declined to be named.
An official at South Korea's arms procurement agency said any delays beyond an intended 2018 delivery date would be "problematic". Seoul has said it would buy 40 of the F-35s, although it still has to finalize this order, a move that could come in February, according to two sources familiar with the issue.
A senior Japan Defense Ministry official said: "We can do nothing but ask the JPO (Joint Program Office) to speed up the program." Tokyo plans to buy 42 of the stealth fighters, with the first four due for delivery by March 2017.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Israel, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Adrian Croft in Brussels, Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Joyce Lee in Seoul; Editing by Ken Wills)