U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta shakes hands with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti on Jan. 16 in Rome's Palazzo Chigi. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP)
ROME — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta backed the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program during a visit to Italy, a country that last year announced plans to scale back its orders of the stealthy warplane due to defense spending cuts.
Panetta reaffirmed the Pentagon’s commitment to the multinational F-35 during a Jan. 16 meeting here with Italian Defense Minister Giampaolo di Paola.
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“I want to thank Italy for their participation in the Joint Strike Fighter program,” Panetta said at an appearance with di Paola at the Italian Defense Ministry. “I want Italy to know that the United States is fully committed to developing this essential fighter for the future.”
Last year, Italy announced it would reduce its F-35 order from 131 to 90 aircraft to cope with defense spending cuts. Italy and other nations across the eurozone have instituted austerity measures to cope with deficits. As these austerity measures begin to bite, the F-35 has come to represent a frequent target for groups in Italy seeking to protect social spending.
In addition, Pier Luigi Bersani, the man many expect to be the next prime minister of Italy, indicated his government would evaluate whether to make cuts to the program.
In addition to purchasing the jet, plans call for an F-35 final assembly and check-out facility in Italy.
But as defense spending shrinks in nations all over the world, the F-35, the Pentagon’s largest acquisition program, is often a target of budget hawks looking for areas to find savings.
Canada recently announced it is reconsidering a decision to purchase the F-35.
The Pentagon has said that despite the budget crunch, it still plans to purchase thousands of these single-engine jets for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.