By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon expects to award contracts for a $3 billion, six-year effort to upgrade its newest warplane, the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet, by the end of 2018, the Air Force general who runs the $391 billion program said on Wednesday.
Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan rejected a call by the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress, to make the $3 billion project into a separate weapons program.
Michael Sullivan, director of defense weapons systems acquisition at GAO, told a hearing of the House Armed Services tactical and air land forces subcommittee that it would be difficult for Congress to oversee the upgrade unless it was carved out of the larger F-35 program.
Lawmakers and independent watchdogs are anxious to keep tabs on the upgrade program after years of cost overruns and delays on the initial fighter jet program. U.S. officials said the F-35 program has made progress on cutting costs, schedule and technical issues since a major restructuring in 2010.
Bogdan said the Defense Department would make every effort to ensure oversight and transparency of the modernization drive, which will give the jets improved capabilities.
Bogdan said the Pentagon's chief arms buyer Frank Kendall would review the upgrade plans before allowing them to proceed, and the F-35 program office would also set up separate cost, schedule and performance metrics for the upgrade effort. Contractors will also have to set up separate systems to oversee their work on the new program.
He said there were no plans to replace Lockheed as the prime contractor for the airplane, or Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp as the enginemaker.
But Bogdan said the program would require a switch to a so-called open systems architecture by around 2023, which would make it easier to swap out sensors and other equipment on the aircraft in the future. He said the program would draw lessons from the Air Force's new B-21 long-range bomber program, which is being designed from the start with such an open architecture.
The Pentagon's Joint Requirements Oversight Council was expected to approve a document mapping out the upgrade plan for the F-35 this summer, Bogdan said, without giving details.
Plans to make the F-35 capable of carrying nuclear weapons were also proceeding, with an eye to integrating the B61-12 weapon onto the Air Force's F-35A model in 2018, he said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Grant McCool)