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Amid Local Opposition, Italy Begins F-35 Assembly

Jul. 20, 2013 - 03:03PM   |  
By TOM KINGTON   |   Comments
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ROME — As spending on the F-35 Joint Striker Fighter program continues to arouse strong opposition in Italy, Alenia Aermacchi has started final assembly work of the country’s first JSFs at a custom built facility near Milan.

The work marks the first time that final assembly of an F-35 has taken place outside the US. Last week, fuselage components were loaded into an electronic mate and alignment system, one of four 50-foot-by-80-foot systems at the JSF Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) line at Cameri Air Base, which is run jointly by Alenia and Lockheed Martin.

The components included a forward fuselage and wing from Lockheed Martin, an aft fuselage from BAE Systems in the UK, a center fuselage from Northrop Grumman. The center fuselage and wing were flown in on July 12 to Milan’s Malpensa from the US on a C-5 airlifter chartered for the occasion.

In addition to running the FACO, which Italy hopes will later attract JSF maintenance work to Cameri, Alenia is also a co-producer of wings, and will supply wings for partner countries’ JSFs in addition to all Italian jets.

The exception will be the first six Italian jets, which will have wings provided by Lockheed Martin. Alenia’s first full wing will be ready for low-rate initial production-7 (LRIP) and is designated for installation on US Air Force conventional takeoff F-35As, Lockheed Martin said, while Italy has ordered its first three jets from LRIP 6.

Three jets from LRIP-7 have also been funded by Italy, while advanced funding has been issued for long lead items for four LRIP-8 jets then due to be ordered, as well as limited funding for four jets from LRIP-9.

The program has been in the political firing line this year over the cost of the aircraft, as Italy makes deep austerity cuts to bring down its debt. Last week, the Italian Senate backed a lower house motion calling for a parliamentary vote before future JSF orders are approved.

The motion has created confusion over whether it means a vote is needed to buy more than the 90 Italian aircraft already approved by Parliament, or more than the six jets funded in LRIP 6 and 7, or more than the 10 jets fully and partly funded in LRIPs 6, 7 and 8. “This motion was a mess,” one Italian analyst said privately.

With the political spotlight on the program, the Italian Air Force called off a planned ceremony to be held at Cameri on July 18 to mark the start of work.

Deliveries of components meanwhile continue. In November, a subsequent set of components will be loaded for the assembly of the second JSF, followed by the start of the assembly of subsequent aircraft in March, July and October 2014 and January 2015, said Debra Palmer, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager for the FACO.

The plane now being assembled will be delivered in the fourth quarter of 2015 after software and flight testing begins in the summer of 2014, while the second aircraft will be delivered in the first quarter of 2016. The first short-takeoff, vertical-landing F-35B jet is the 14th aircraft due to be delivered — the last jet in LRIP-9, with a delivery date in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Palmer said the facility is designed to have a full rate of production of two aircraft a month, or 24 a year. Dutch jets due to be assembled at Cameri have slipped from the original planned LRIP-6 to a forecasted order in LRIP 10 or 11, Palmer said, meaning a slower ramp up of production.

“There will be spare capacity,” she said. With the Dutch planes being assembled alongside the Italian planes, the FACO would reach a rate of 18 to 19 jets a year, while the Italian jets alone would reach a rate of eight to nine jets a year depending on when orders are placed, she said.

Low-observable coatings will be applied by Alenia, although the make up of the coatings is proprietary to the US, Palmer said.

Palmer said Alenia had been scheduled to produce 1,215 wings, but is now committed to a minimum of 835 after the reduction of Italy’s order of JSFs from 131 to 90. Alenia’s full rate of production will be 66 a year and expandable to 72.

Alenia has to come in at the same price as Lockheed Martin on wing production. “This is a challenge for Alenia Aermacchi since they are just beginning the wing production but they are investing in the big picture,” she said.

Assembly work on the FACO for Italian jets has not been pegged to Lockheed Martin assembly rates but any non-Italian jets assembled there will be completed at exactly the same price as if done in Fort Worth, Texas, Palmer said.

“Cameri is all about the future and it was built with the idea it will be the logical choice for maintenance for other fleets, and Lockheed Martin has indicated that will be the case,” she said.

“The Italians are also prepared to have buildings to be dedicated to other countries which they will not enter, just as they built the signature building which will be used by US citizens. It is bold, broad thinking which will be pay dividends.”

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