By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan assumed control of the Pentagon's F-35 jet fighter program on Thursday, saying he believes the program is well-positioned for the future after hard work by his predecessor to put it on a "firmer, more realistic" footing.
Bogdan replaces U.S. Navy Vice Admiral David Venlet, who is retiring after 36 years in the Navy and more than two years running the $396 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's biggest weapons program, which is built by Lockheed Martin Corp.
At a Pentagon ceremony, Bogdan said Venlet and his team had helped ensure the long-term survival of what he described as "the most complex program in history."
"Not only did they right the ship and deliver the first aircraft to an operational squadron, but we are now very well-positioned for the future," he said, according to a statement prepared by the Pentagon.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter presided over the ceremony, which was attended by 150 people, including Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and his chief of staff General Mark Welsh, as well top executives from companies involved in the F-35 program.
After a year of often tense negotiations, the Pentagon last week reached a deal with Lockheed to buy a fifth batch of 32 additional F-35 fighters, a deal valued at $3.8 billion. The two sides hope to finalize the terms of that agreement before the end of the year.
Separately on Thursday, the Pentagon announced it had awarded Lockheed a contract modification valued at $387 million for continued sustainment work on the F-35 aircraft already delivered to the U.S. military, including ground maintenance systems and a computerized logistics system.
Lockheed also hopes to secure some additional funding for early production work on a sixth batch of F-35 planes, which the company and its suppliers have been funding on their own.
The Pentagon is negotiating a separate agreement with engine maker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, to supply engines for that fifth batch of planes.
Jay DeFrank, a spokesman for Pratt & Whitney, said those discussions were going well, but declined to project when an agreement might be reached.
The program has reached other milestones in recent months, including surpassing 5,000 flight hours and creation of the first operational squadron of F-35s at a Marine Corps air base in Arizona.
On Wednesday, the Navy said the Marine Corps version of the plane - the F-35B - had test dropped a GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb, the second successful weapons drop for the B model and the fourth for the program overall.
The Air Force is also poised to approve the start of full training efforts at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, after completion of an operational utility evaluation last month. The decision could be announced soon, an Air Force spokesman said.
Lockheed is developing three different variants of the F-35 for the U.S. military and eight countries that are helping fund the development: Britain, Italy, Turkey, Norway, Australia, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands. Together, these countries plan to buy more than 3,100 fighters in coming decades.
Israel and Japan have also ordered the new fighter jet while South Korea is weighing competing bids from Lockheed's F-35 and Boeing Co's F-15 fighter.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by M.D. Golan)