ROME — Italy appears set to push ahead with its order of 90 F-35 joint strike fighters, and has said it will buy 38 by 2020, despite simmering pressure from politicians to trim the program.
In its definitive budget plan for 2015, published in May, the Italian Ministry of Defense said it would spend €582.7 million (US $634.3 million) to maintain JSF purchases this year. So far, Italy has ordered eight F-35As, including three from low rate initial production (LRIP) lot 6 for delivery this year and next year, three from LRIP 7 for delivery next year, and two from LRIP 8 for delivery in 2017.
In March, the first JSF rolled off the assembly line built at Cameri in northern Italy, making it the first JSF assembled outside the US.
Italy's stated ambition to order 38 aircraft by 2020 follows criticism of the program by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who said the JSF program would be "revised" after he took office last year.
Then, with many in his own party criticizing spending on the JSF as Italy struggled to balance its budgets, Renzi said in August last year that "the biggest weapon to create peace is not the F-35 or the Eurofighter but schools."
In June, with six aircraft ordered, Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti responded to opposition to the program by stating she was freezing new orders until the completion of a new white paper on defense which would set out Italy's defense priorities.
However, in October, the Pentagon announced that Italy would be among the countries taking aircraft from LRIP 8.
Meanwhile, the white paper has been issued and contains strategic priorities, but officials have said that translating that into the number of aircraft Italy needs will be put off until the military General Staff carries out its own strategic review based on the white paper.
The new defense budget does respond to complaints about JSF costs from Italian politicians, stating that savings will be made on the program "in the medium to long term," up to 2026. After investing €3.5 billion to date, the industrial return for Italy, in terms of contracts signed, amounted to €1.6 billion, the document states.
The government's bid to keep up the pace on JSF orders is based partly on wishing to avoid losing industrial benefits.
Last December, Italy's €360 million assembly plant for the fighter was chosen by the DoD as Europe's F-35 airframe maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade center, which should keep the plant alive long after Italy's jets have been assembled.
Meanwhile, keeping aircraft orders up is helping local firm Alenia Aermacchi maintain its workshare on the program making wing sets. When Italy previously cut its order of JSFs from 131 to 90, Alenia saw its wing set order from Lockheed Martin drop from 1,215 to 835.
On May 26, a wing set produced by Alenia at Cameri entered the F-35 production line at Fort Worth, Texas, for the first time.
On the same day, the Ministry of Defense defended its record on the program as "transparent," adding that the orders placed to date were driven by the need to comply with "international agreements," to seek maximum economic return on the program and to help build Italy's industrial and technology base.
Looking ahead, the 2015 budget document said that future JSF funding would be included in six-year defense budget laws that the MoD plans to introduce, which will be voted through parliament.
The decision to seek iron-clad, long-term budgets, which is set down in the white paper, is aimed at giving military planners greater funding certainty.
The MoD has tried publishing three-year funding forecasts, which have proved wildly optimistic thanks to funding cuts.
This year's budget lists total MoD spending of €13.19 billion in 2015, including procurement spending of €2.37 billion, albeit with €2.5 billion added to the procurement pot by the Ministry of Industry, giving a total procurement spend of €4.87 billion.
The €582.7 million for the joint strike fighter is outstripped by spending on the Eurofighter, which gets €768 million from the Industry Ministry.
This year, the budget forecast for future procurement is less optimistic than usual, foreseeing a dramatic drop to just €1.95 billion in 2016 and €1.93 billion in 2017.
One new program coming on stream this year is Italy's so-called naval law, which foresees a total of €5.4 billion for spending on six new multifunctional vessels, a logistics ship, an amphibious transport dock and two fast boats for special forces.
The budget includes €175.6 million for the program this year, and predicts €472 million will be spent in 2016 and €690 million in 2017.