By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pratt & Whitney on Friday defended the quality and reliability of the F135 engine that powers Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet, saying they were improving despite concerns raised in a new congressional report.
Bennett Croswell, who heads Pratt & Whitney's military engines division, told Reuters in an interview that it was also working to drive down the cost of the powerful engine and prepare for a large increase in production in coming years.
Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, was standing by to test integration of the F135 engine into the F-35's computer-based logistics system once Lockheed finishes the required software coding, but that work was running behind schedule, Croswell said.
The U.S. Air Force wants the engines integrated into the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, before it will declare an initial squadron of F-35 jets ready for combat use. Its target was August, but the head of the F-35 program office has already said the date could slip by 60 days.
As a result, Croswell said the Air Force's declaration of an initial operational capability could be delayed until November, although it depended on how soon the coding was completed.
Pratt had retrofitted seven of 12 engines required for the Air Force combat-ready declaration, he said.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, which monitors federal spending, on Thursday released a report that cited progress on the $379 billion F-35 program, but raised concerns about the quality and reliability of the jet and its engine.
Croswell said Pratt & Whitney had reduced the number of parts that had quality issues by 80 percent since instituting a major quality assurance program in 2012, and was meeting a requirement for the mean time between major repairs two years ahead of schedule.
He said the company had retrofitted seven of 12 engines required for the Air Force combat-ready declaration.
Croswell said the engine did not have to be integrated into the ALIS system for the fleet to operate, noting that Pratt & Whitney had been supporting the Marine Corps for nearly a year after its declaration of an initial combat-ready squadron.
Pratt & Whitney is also continuing to test new components that it says could lower the cost of each F135 engine by $400,000 and lower its weight by 20 pounds (9 kg), he said.
(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Bill Rigby)