Italy has confirmed a base-sharing plan for its F-35 order of STOVL jets similar to the one seen above at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (Lockheed Martin)
As it cuts its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter order, Italy has confirmed a base sharing plan for its 30 Navy and Air Force short-takeoff, vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft, which is set to save on maintenance and support.
The fighters — 15 for the Navy and 15 for the Air Force — will be grouped at the Navy’s Grottaglie base in southern Italy, which currently hosts the Navy’s AV-8 Harrier jump jets.
The decision ends a simmering debate between the Navy and Air Force about how many STOVL aircraft each service would receive, a debate that kicked off when Italy cut its order in February.
“The arrangement with the Italian Ministry of Defense, which issued the directive on this, was that the Air Force and Navy would put two squadrons of 15 aircraft in a single base, and we accepted to share the base with the Navy at Grottaglie close to where the [Italian carrier] Cavour is stationed,” said Gen. Giuseppe Bernardis, Italian Air Force chief.
Italy’s original planned order of 131 JSFs was cut back to 90 in February due to budget cuts. The Air Force had planned to buy around 40 F-35B STOVLs to replace its AMX fighters, while the Navy said it needed at least 22 to keep a full contingent on board the Cavour.
Instead, the services are left with 15 STOVLs apiece, while the Air Force will receive 60 conventional F-35As.
“Supportability is a key issue with two squadrons of 15 and 15 [STOVLs],” Bernardis said. “We think 30 is a number that is sustainable, and that is why we are going together. We will have common support and different advanced training.”
Bernardis said the two squadrons would not fall under one command, nor would Air Force pilots get into the habit of flying from the decks of the Cavour.
“That is something we are not aiming at now, but in case of need, we are ready to do everything,” he said. “We don’t want a replica of the U.K. system where the [Royal Air Force] and Royal Navy Harriers are under one single line of command. The British model creates too many controversies between the two forces.
“But what is important is that we could switch JSF aircraft between the two services,” he said. “The aircraft will be owned by the two forces, but in case of necessity, the Air Force vision is that pilots from one force could fly the aircraft belonging to the other force.”
The Air Force had previously considered basing its STOVLs at its Amendola base in southern Italy, but F-35As will go there instead.
“Amendola was always meant to be a base for the F-35 — whether the B or A model makes little substantial difference,” Bernardis said. “Amendola will receive our first F-35A squadron, so we did not spend money without reason at Amendola.”
The Italian Air Force’s decision to buy the STOVL variant has raised eyebrows in Italy, but Bernardis said he saw a real need for the aircraft.
“We commissioned a Lockheed Martin study 12 years ago about mixed fleet capability and we think in many instances, the use of the F-35B could make the difference between having and not having a suitable runway for land operations,” he said.
“We saw examples of this in the Balkans, as well as in Afghanistan, where we had to ask the Germans to use their runway where they were deployed because we couldn’t operate our Tornados from our main base in Herat,” he added.
“The Marine Corps and the RAF used Harriers in Afghanistan, and the Marines are not just envisaging the use of the F-35B at sea.”
Bernardis also said he was not put off by continual talk of price hikes in the program.
“The aim of the JSF was to be an affordable platform from the point of view of procurement and sustainment,” he said. “If it is not affordable now, it is only because it has been the subject of never-ending discussions about increasing capabilities and engine options.
“Moreover, JSF is not the only program having problems around the world. The difference is that JSF is a huge program,” he said.
“I strongly believe it will cost much less than forecast now. And we have many precedents like F-16 which had the same problem. If you go back to some [U.S. General Accountability Office] reports from the time, you will find out that it was very similar to what is going on now,” he added.
“When you go for major programs, you will find problems in the development phase when you have many partners around the world and when you have strong competition. JSF is competing everywhere with other programs, including in the U.S.”
In Italy, the Air Force is tightening its belt to cope with slumping defense spending. Bernardis said that plans were underway to bring Italy’s Tornados together in one base.
Procurement has not, however, stopped altogether. The Air Force is now leasing a Gulfstream III with signals intelligence capabilities from Lockheed Martin and could buy early warning Gulfstream aircraft from Israel in a swap deal under which Israel will buy the Italian M-346 trainer.
“As far as early warning goes, we are in the NATO [airborne warning and control system] community even though that community is limited in what it can do in peacetime. We are actively looking at a small national capability and we are looking at options,” Bernardis said.
“Now our procurement staff is talking to Israel,” Bernardis said. “There is nothing firm. The dimensions are much smaller than what we were discussing. It is an option we are looking at.”