ROME — After years in which key procurement decisions were quietly made by senior politicians and generals, a new generation of Italian parliamentarians wants to claim a role in the process.
A wave of new entries into parliament in February, including many represented by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, combined with heightened public awareness of defense spending as recession bites, has turned the defense commissions from obliging rubber stamps into busy forums for debate.
And if a pending law giving the commission veto power over acquisitions is enacted, the commissions will have the decision-making clout they seek. This could make life difficult for the Defense Ministry if it has to win approval for all future acquisitions, including big-ticket items such as the joint strike fighter (JSF).
“The lower house commission has increased its work rate by 100 percent, and we are still learning; in September, we will pick things up further,” said Massimo Artini, who was elected to parliament this year with the Five Star Movement, founded by Grillo to challenge mainstream Italian politics.
A former IT entrepreneur, Artini is one of two vice presidents of the lower house defense commission.
Elio Vito, the president of the commission, said there have been 60 meetings since new members were drafted in in May after the election.
The debate on defense has focused on Italy’s purchase of 90 JSFs, which has drawn criticism as Italy cuts social spending to whittle down its huge debt. Earlier this summer, the lower house and the senate voted on motions requiring parliamentary authorization before more JSFs are ordered.
Italy has ordered its first three jets from the program’s low rate initial production (LRIP) 6, while builder Lockheed Martin has said three jets from LRIP 7 have also been funded and advanced funding has been issued for long lead items for four LRIP 8 jets, as well as limited funding for four jets from LRIP 9.
That has created confusion over how many Italy has ordered and at what point parliament would need to approve further purchases. When he spoke before the lower house commission July 16, procurement chief Gen. Claudio Debertolis declined to respond when asked how many planes Italy had ordered.
“The debate on the JSF has started late, while contradictory and changing responses have been given to questions about jobs, costs and the number ordered,” said Gianandrea Gaiani, director of Bologna-based defense publication Analisi Difesa.
Called to address the lower house commission on Aug. 1, Gaiani criticized Italy’s JSF purchase, claiming Italy should use the Eurofighter for ground attack, just as Germany is planning.
Gaiani said the influx of parliamentarians from the Five Star Movement and the left wing SEL party has enlivened the commission. “They have not accepted the role of simply ratifying party and government decisions,” he said.
While arguing the merits of the JSF, Italian defense analyst Michele Nones, who also addressed the commission Aug. 1, said the influx of new politicians were “younger and more motivated” than Italy’s previous generation of parliamentarians.
Beyond the JSF, the lower house commission has also launched legislation to give it more insight into how the government brokers defense export deals for Italian firms.
The bid to insert more transparency into funding decisions started last year, before the election, under the government of Mario Monti. A measure was introduced requiring the Defense Ministry to list, for the first time, the top-up procurement funding it receives from the Industry Ministry.
In his speech to the commission, Nones said Italy’s the habit of drawing defense funding from different sources to blur the total budget amount had puts it Italy on par with China.
This year’s budget revealed that, in addition to spending 3.4 billion euros (US $4.5 billion) on procurement, more than 2 billion euros would be handed over by the Industry Ministry.
Another measure set out in last year’s reform law gave veto power to the commissions over new defense purchases. The Ministry of Defense has long sent its new acquisition plans to the commissions for a vote of approval, but the votes were non-binding and passed with little debate.
Under the new law, the commissions will have 40 days to approve or reject a procurement plan after it is submitted. If rejected, the Ministry of Defense would rewrite the plans, and the commissions then have 30 days to reconsider them before approving or rejecting them.
But to render the new powers effective, a supplementary decree still must be passed by the Italian government to render these new powers effective, which Artini said he expected in September.
“This will really change things,” he said.
But Antonio Rugghia, a former parliamentarian and member of the commission that helped pass the law last year, warned that opponents of such new commission powers could try to alter the wording of the law and dilute its intended effect.
“It is possible that the government will try to make keep the commission’s vote non-binding,” he said.