By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Nov 7 (Reuters) - If South Korea decides toorder Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets fordelivery in 2017, the aircraft would come with the softwareneeded to carry a full load of weapons, Lockheed and thePentagon's F-35 program office said Thursday, refuting a claimmade earlier this week by a Boeing consultant.
South Korea is expected to confirm in coming weeks that itneeds radar-evading capabilities such as those offered by theF-35, after an acquisition task force last month rejected a bidto buy Boeing Co's F-15.
Boeing and its supporters are now pressing for a split buyof Boeing F-15s and Lockheed F-35s, arguing that South Koreawould need the greater weapons-carrying capacity of the Boeingplanes to counter a possible North Korean threat.
They say the F-15 is a proven aircraft that can carry moreweapons at high speeds and over longer distances than the F-35,which could be critical in a war with the North.
Ron Fogleman, who served as U.S. Air Force chief of stafffrom 1994 to 1997 and now works as a consultant for Boeing, toldreporters on Monday that delays in the development of the F-35software meant Boeing's F-15 would be able to carry more weaponswhen South Korea starts to retire its current F-4 and F-5fighters in 2016 and 2017.
But officials with Lockheed and the F-35 program office toldReuters the 3F software would be released to the F-35 fleet inthe third quarter of 2017. That would allow the jet to achieveits full combat capability and carry a full load of weapons intime for the delivery schedule that South Korea is seeking, theysaid.
Lockheed planned an initial release of the 3F software fordevelopmental flight testing in September 2014, said companyspokesman Eric Schnaible.
South Korea has said it needs delivery of the first newfighter jets in 2017 so it can start replacing its aging currentfleet of warplanes. To ensure delivery in 2017, Seoul would haveto place initial orders of F-35 jets in the ninth batch of jets,which is expected to carry the 3F software.
"If (the South Koreans) decide to procure F-35s, thenaircraft ordered in lot 9 or later will be configured with 3Fsoftware," said Rear Admiral Randy Mahr, deputy F-35 programmanager, in a statement responding to a Reuters query.
The Pentagon hopes to award Lockheed a contract for advancedprocurement of titanium and other materials for that ninth batchof jets by the end of this year.
The Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, onThursday said the F-35 program had made sufficient progress toallow the department to budget for increased production of thenew planes, but said more work was needed on software,reliability and a complex logistics system.
Mahr said the F-35 program office was confident that theearlier software would be completed in time for the Marine Corpsto start using the jets for operations in mid-2015, followed bythe Air Force a year later.
He said there was "some risk" in the current schedule forcompletion of the 3F software, since it depended to some extenton the success of the 2B software, and the 3I export version.
Lockheed has separate teams working on the different versionof the software versions, but they share some of resources suchas labs, airplanes, engineers, he said.
"As development efforts wrap up on one software block,additional resources will shift and be allocated to work on 3F,"Mahr said in the statement.
He said confidence in the 3F execution plan would increaseif the earlier software versions were completed on time. "If wehave to leave people and resources on 2B and 3I longer, thenthat could affect our final capability," he added.
One defense official, who was not authorized to speakpublicly, said both the Marine Corps and Air Force had clearlydecided that the F-35 offered so many additional capabilitiesthat they were moving ahead with the 2B software rather thanwait for completion of the later software.
"I'd rather go across the line with the 2B software in thefifth-generation F-35 than an advanced version of the fourthgeneration fighters out there today," said the official.