WASHINGTON, May 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is considering opening to competition future upgrades of the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet in the Pentagon's costliest arms project, the Air Force's top acquisition official said Friday.
William LaPlante said the service was assessing costs to transform the airplane's software into a so-called "open architecture" system that would make it easier to plug in future equipment upgrades.
"It's not been decided that we will do it, or won't do it, but it has been decided that we're going to try," LaPlante told reporters after a breakfast hosted by the Air Force Association.
The Pentagon's F-35 program office is looking at how to structure Block 4, the first software upgrades scheduled after the F-35 completes developmental testing in 2017.
The $391 billion program has moved beyond years of cost overruns and schedule delays and is on track to meet a key milestone this summer when the Marine Corps declares a squadron of 10 F-35 B-model jets ready for combat use.
LaPlante said the Air Force was on track to declare an "initial operational capability" next year.
Current plans call for that version of the jet's software to add additional weapons, the ability to carry out live video streaming and other capabilities, with funding and procurement decisions to be made over the next several years, said Joe DellaVedova, the Pentagon's F-35 spokesman.
LaPlante said the Air Force was structuring new weapons programs with an "open architecture" from the start, but it was more difficult and costly to reconfigure programs once they had begun. "You have to look at the business case," he said. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Richard Chang)