By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is on track to declare Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet ready for initial combat use by August or September 2016, and officials are already looking at possible future upgrades to its weapons, propulsion and avionics.
Major General Jeffrey Harrigian, the two-star general named in January to oversee all things F-35 for the Air Force, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday the program was making good progress, but he was keeping close tabs on key items required to meet the target date.
Those issues include software development, modification of existing jets to incorporate design changes, further work on a complex automated logistics system called ALIS and ensuring a sufficient number of technicians are trained to service the jet.
"There's a lot of work to be done ... but from where we sit, we're on the right glide path to IOC (initial operational capability)," Harrigian said.
He said the Air Force planned for the new jet to reach full operational capability around 2021 or 2022, with larger numbers of planes and weaponry ready for full combat use.
The $391 billion program will deliver three different F-35 models for the U.S. military and a number of U.S. allies that have already placed orders: Britain, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Israel.
The U.S. Marine Corps will be the first military service to declare its B-model jets, which can take off and land like a helicopter, ready for initial combat use this July.
Harrigian, a pilot with more than 4,100 hours flying time in the F-22 and other planes, said the F-22 fighter saw similar software challenges but ultimately became "an amazing airplane."
He said the Air Force was already looking at follow-on capabilities for the F-35, given rapid technology development by potential adversaries, and ensuring that the infrastructure was in place to allow such upgrades.
"We are already considering and thinking through what are some of the technologies that will be part of the F-35," Harrigian said. "This is not the time to rest on your laurels."
Harrigian gave few details but said potential upgrades could include new avionics systems, radar, laser weapons and a new more fuel-efficient engine.
"I don't think we would take anything off the table at this point," he said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Ted botha)