ROME — Italy’s decision to slash its overall F-35 Joint Strike Fighter order from 131 to 90 jets has kick-started a debate over how the Italian Air Force and Navy can divide a shrinking number of F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing (STOVL) versions in the package.
With both services wanting the jet and neither likely to get the number they want, talks are underway at the Ministry of Defense to find a solution, with a pooled fleet a growing possibility, officials and analysts said.
Before Defense Minister Giampao-lo di Paola announced the JSF reduction in February, prompted by defense spending cuts, the Air Force had planned to acquire 69 conventional F-35As to replace its Tornados and 40 F-35Bs to replace its AMX fighter bombers, citing a need to field STOVL aircraft to exploit short landing strips. That left the Navy with 22 STOVL versions to replace its aging AV-8 Harriers on its new carrier, the Cavour.
In a recent interview with the Italian publication Airpress, Air Force chief Gen. Giuseppe Bernardis said, “The Air Force will have 75
F-35s, of which 15 will be B, adding to the Navy’s 15.”
His prediction, however, followed statements from Rear Adm. Paolo Treu, head of Italian naval aviation, that 22 STOVL aircraft, not 15, is the absolute minimum number the Navy can order. That suggests the talks at the MoD will be heated.
“If the Navy is asked to go down to 15 aircraft, it will fight to the very end against it,” said Silvio Lora-Lamia, who has covered Italy’s JSF acquisition for Bologna-based defense publication Analisi Difesa.
Bernardis’ prediction envisions the Air Force losing nine F-35As and 25 F-35Bs. The Navy would lose fewer STOVLs — just seven. But Navy officials claim that 22 F-35Bs is just enough to keep a full contingent aboard Cavour during operations.
With three aircraft likely to be kept in the U.S. as a contribution to a pilot training pool and five predicted to need maintenance at any given time, 14 would be left. They and six helicopters complete Cavour’s line-up.
While Cavour awaits its JSFs, the vessel has completed qualification to host Italy’s AV-8s as a stopgap before they are retired from service around 2020. Qualification had not been completed during last year’s Libyan conflict, meaning that Italy’s older carrier, the Garibaldi, was called in to launch AV-8 missions over Libya.
If the STOVL fleet is 30 aircraft, neither the Navy nor the Air Force would be able to manage, one analyst said.
“If the Air Force wants a squadron, 15 aircraft is not enough,” said former Italian military chief of staff Gen. Vincenzo Camporini, now a vice president at the Italian think tank IAI.
The only solution, he said, is for the two services to operate one pooled fleet. “This has to be the future, otherwise it is unsustainable,” he said. “There should not be a problem for pilots if their aircraft was being used by another service the week before an operation.”
A pooled fleet, he said, would mean one shared air base. Currently the Navy plans to host its JSFs, when on land, at its Grottaglie base in southern Italy. The Air Force is eyeing its Amendola base, also in southern Italy, as one of two JSF bases.
A senior defense source confirmed the aircraft would be interchangeable. But pilots will not be, due to the different skills involved in flying from land and from a carrier deck.