By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Marine Corps said on Wednesday it is sticking to a July 2015 target to declare an initial squadron of 10 new Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets ready for combat use, but said it would not be devastated if the date slipped to August.
"It's too soon to flinch," outgoing Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said in an interview at his Pentagon office, when asked if the Marines would miss their target date for declaring an initial operational capability (IOC).
"It's a tight timeline, but I think it's doable," he said. "But I'm a realist. If it's August, it's August. ... There is some risk in a mid-summer IOC but we've known that all along."
The Marine Corps has set July 2015 as the date by which it wants to be able to use the stealthy new jets in combat, followed by the Air Force in 2016 and the Navy in 2018 or 2019.
The Marines are slated to buy 340 F-35 B-models, which can take off from shorter runways and land vertically, plus 80 F-35 C-models, which have longer wings and a tailhook that allows them to land on aircraft carriers.
Amos said he remained bullish about the $399 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program despite a June 23 engine failure that grounded the F-35 fleet for several weeks this summer and has raised questions about the Marines' July target date.
F-35 program officials and Lockheed say they are working hard to complete development of the Block 2B software needed to meet that date, and finish a series of required retrofits.
Amos cited a "medium risk" that the 2B software would not be ready in time, and said the Marines would also defer some modifications that were not needed immediately.
The Marines are slated to receive the Block 2B software for use in pilot simulators in the spring, but the actual jets were unlikely to get the software until July or August, he said.
That would still allow the service to declare the jets ready for combat, he said, since the pilots would have been able to train with the expanded capabilities the software includes.
Amos said the program's ups and downs were typical of other military aircraft developments. "It's still in developmental testing, ladies and gentlemen. Take a deep breath. That's why they call it development testing. Cause you discover things."
He welcomed an agreement with Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, announced Tuesday that will lower the cost of a seventh batch of engines by 4.5 percent, but said the Pentagon was pushing for further cuts.
Amos said the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force were also studying the possible cost savings of doing some repairs for the jets at an intermediate location, rather than shipping them back to the respective service maintenance depots.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Richard Chang)