More Work: Italy is seeking additional F-35 work for its final assembly and checkout facility at Cameri Air Base. (Lockheed Martin)
ROME — Italy’s defense minister, during a Friday meeting with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, will ask the US to boost the Italian workshare on the Joint Strike Fighter program at its final assembly line, even as Italy reduces spending on the aircraft.
During a speech to the defense commissions of the Italian parliament on Tuesday, Roberta Pinotti said she would make the request during a Friday visit to Washington.
“My intention is to strongly request the help of US authorities, in the context of a wider strategic partnership which has historically united our two countries, to increase in the coming years the workload at the Cameri facility to compensate the reduction in work linked to Italy’s requirements,” Pinotti said.
Italy has built a final assembly line for its JSFs at its Cameri air base in northern Italy, which is facing a shortfall in production after Italy cut its order from 131 to 90 aircraft.
A deal has meanwhile been struck to assemble Dutch jets at the plant, and Pinotti said talks are also underway with Norway.
Norway’s first JSF is in the early stages of assembly at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, facility and Norway does not plan to switch facilities, said Endre Lunde, an adviser to the Norweigan MoD.
Italy has also frozen the signing of new JSF contracts following a vote last year in parliament over budget concerns. Pinotti said that only six aircraft have been contracted from the program’s low rate initial production (LRIP) 6 and 7.
Italy has also authorized procurement of long-lead items for two LRIP 8 conventional JSFs and two LRIP 9 aircraft — a conventional version and a short-takeoff vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft.
No further orders will be made until a new white paper on Italy’s defense requirements is completed in December, Pinotti said.
The freeze on orders has affected payments for long-lead items for four LRIP 10 aircraft, two conventional and two STOVL, which were due in February to maintain delivery schedules.
By not paying for the items, Italy has ensured a gap in production at Cameri, said an industrial source.
“This needed to happen at the start of the year,” the source said. “If it now happens at the end of the year, that opens up a gap of up to a year in production.”
Moreover, the acquisition contracts for the LRIP 8 aircraft were due to be finalized this year, the source added.
Pinotti warned that if production at Cameri is interrupted after work on LRIP 6 and 7 aircraft, a “learning curve” would be affected, harming the site’s competitiveness and prompting other nations to reconsider before using it to assemble their fighters.
As the freeze went into effect, Italy said this year it would trim €153 million (US $208.4 million) from the JSF program in 2014, part of a €400 million cut to procurement spending announced in April to help finance tax breaks in Italy.
The cut delayed the planned release in April of the Defense Ministry’s breakdown on procurement spending for 2014. The overall defense budget for 2014 had been released in December, but under new procedures launched last year, the breakdown was due for release in April.
On June 24, Pinotti unveiled the delayed document, which was accompanied by an Addendum note explaining where the €400 million cut, plus another €91.4 million taken by other cuts, would fall.
That left €2.73 billion for procurement this year, down from the €3.22 billion originally planned. Apart from the €153 million trimmed from the €509 million earmarked for JSF spending, a handful of other programs suffered minor reductions, including €30 million taken from the Vulcano guided munition program.
The cut left overall Defense Ministry spending at €13.59 billion for 2014.
As per the new format for budgets launched last year, the document is a three-year plan, giving figures for 2015 and 2016. It predicts procurement spending of €2.87 billion in 2015 and €2.86 billion in 2016.
Apart from Defense Ministry funding for procurement, the document lists €2.03 billion in funding as a top-up from Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development.
In a sign of greater transparency within the Italian government, this is the second year the document has revealed the cash injection to the Defense Ministry coffers after years in which the figure was kept secret.
Chief beneficiary of the top-up is Italy’s Eurofighter program, which receives €770 million, with €40 million also going to kickstart the Navy’s new, €5.8 billion shipbuilding plan.
In her speech to parliament, Pinotti said the ships being built included six multipurpose ships with four options, one logistics vessel, one amphibious ship, and two high-speed vessels for special forces.
Pinotti said Italy would seek to have the program managed by the Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en matière d'Armement, the Europe-based NATO procurement agency, and added she had suggested to her French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, that France team on some of the programs. Italy and France have previously teamed on building Horizon and FREMM class frigates. “The interest is great,” she said.
Absent from this year’s procurement list is a €390 million multifunctional naval vessel, complete with a mini-submarine, for submarine logistics, special operations and research missions, funding for which was launched last year.
In her remarks to parliament, Pinotti said the 10-year target for military personnel reduction is 40,000, which would shrink the armed forces from 190,000 to 150,000. ■
Gerard O’Dwyer contributed to this report from Helsinki.