US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel greets Roberta Pinotti, Italian defense minister, prior to meetings at the Pentagon in Washington on June 27. (SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images)
ROME — As the Pentagon prepares to pick a candidate by year’s end to carry out airframe maintenance on Europe-based F-35 joint strike fighters, Italy’s defense minister has said Cameri Air Base in northern Italy is the favorite.
“Italy has made a really significant investment, building a large factory on military property and therefore we think we are pole position for this recognition,” Roberta Pinotti said. “An investment of this kind deserves adequate support.”
Cameri is already home to Europe’s only final assembly line for the F-35, which is assembling Italian aircraft and which is seen by Rome as a natural contender to handle European sustainment for the program as aircraft go into service.
“We have the ambition to make Cameri Air Base the European JSF hub,” Pinotti said.
In an interview this month with Defense News, US Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, said the Defense Department would soon pick partners to provide sustainment in Asia, Europe and the Pacific.
Sites for heavy airframe maintenance and heavy engine maintenance in Europe and the Pacific would be chosen by the end of the year, he said.
Pinotti pressed home the merits of Cameri during a meeting with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on June 27 and told Defense News she was also arguing that the facility get a share of final assembly work on European jets, not just future maintenance.
Holland has already signed to assemble its jets at Cameri, and Pinotti said Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert had been “absolutely enthusiastic” during a visit on July 7. Norway was a second target, she said.
Israel, Pinotti said, has also expressed an interest in construction at Cameri. “If they would like to come to Italy we would be very happy,” she said.
Hitherto, Italy has not received firm guarantees that it would get European maintenance work at Cameri, and European partners may yet seek to use their own facilities for sustainment activities. But Bogdan’s announcement indicates the US will now take a more active role in assigning roles.
Bogdan pointed out that it would make sense to leverage the almost $1billion Italy has already spent on its check out facility. Pinotti said political considerations should also play a role.
“There is no doubt the F-35 is an industrial program with a commercial logic, but it is also an aircraft which will give huge interoperability to partners and there is a value in the political choice of having a group of countries that can use it,” she said.
“It is no coincidence that Cameri is on Air Force land and was a choice made not by industry but by the government,” she added. While Cameri was funded by the government, it is now managed by Italian state-controlled firm Alenia Aermacchi, teamed with Lockheed Martin.
Pinotti also suggested a greater role for Italy would help win over Italian public opinion, which has grown skeptical of the program as shrinking budgets prompt drastic cuts in Italian public spending.
“The US considers this aircraft strategic for the future and it may be worried about hostility to the program,” Pinotti said.
“We know public opinion has doubts about the high cost at a moment of crisis,” she said. “We need to consider the alliance between Italy and the US and how we can give reciprocal help in this alliance, rather than reduce everything to a question of mere numbers and mere industrial interests. There is something more,” she said.
Amid opposition from Parliament to the program, Italy has frozen orders for the JSF until a new white paper on defense is published in December, which Pinotti said would set down Italy’s strategic outlook and help shape the number of military aircraft it needed.
“How many theaters do we expect to operate in and will we need ground attack aircraft, yes or no?” she said. “It’s premature to talk about numbers until the white book is concluded.”
The white paper is being drawn up by a select group of ministry-appointed experts, but Pinotti said Italy’s two parliamentary defense commissions would be involved, while comments were also being invited from the public.
The commissions, she said, might even draw up their own white papers.
One example of a conclusion that might be included in the white paper, she said, was an integration of logistics between armed forces to match the degree of joint activity now undertaken.
Pinotti said the ministry had also consulted partner nations on drawing up a white paper, including France, which had sent an official to Rome for consultations.
Pinotti has also spoken to her French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian about teaming on a new generation of multirole ships that Italy has funded. She said she was not concerned about the less-than-hoped-for synergy on the Italo-French FREMM frigate program, which ended with the partners giving their vessels varying configurations.
“Experience of the past can help us better manage the future. We want to save as much as possible,” she said.
As for wider European defense cooperation, Pinotti downplayed the apparent failure of last December’s EU Council meeting on defense, which was expected to push European defense cooperation.
The focus, she argued, should be placed on “realistic and concrete” initiatives that might involve just a handful of nations, rather than all. As an example, she pointed to the Italo-French brigade due to be stood up in Lebanon in 2015 as well talks on European drones and pooled air transport. ■