Lockheed Martin downplays Gates' criticism of F-35 program

One day after being publicly scolded by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Lockheed Martin officials overseeing the F-35 joint strike fighter program insisted it is in better shape than recent events suggest.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday in a conference call just hours before the fifth F-35 test airplane made its inaugural flight, two Lockheed executives said they were aware that Gates and top Pentagon officials expect better results.

"Clearly, [Gates' office] is sending a message that performance must improve," said Dan Crowley, executive vice president and F-35 general manager over design and testing of the jet, also known as the Lightning II. He said Lockheed is working with the government to set and meet realistic timetables, technical goals and cost targets.

Crowley, as he has previously done, said the problems Lockheed and other contractors have encountered building the aircraft, developing software and putting it all in ready-to-fly test planes is not as troubled as some government reports portray.

Writing and testing of software code for the F-35s flight controls is largely done, Crowley said, and there is progress on more complex codes for weapons, targeting, communications and surveillance systems. A recent report by the Pentagon's weapons testing office said software development was 12 months behind schedule, but Crowley said Lockheed and the program office believe it's between three and six months.

With more than 100 software releases installed in test aircraft so far, Crowley said there has not been a single instance where a plane had to cut short a test flight because of a software problem. Similarly, a potential problem of an overheating clutch that controls the vertical thrust fan and drive train in the F-35B model, cited as a serious concern by the testing office, has been resolved, Crowley said.

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