WASHINGTON – Italy's success in signing up Kuwait to the Eurofighter program has sparked a debate over what the country is doing right, and doing wrong, when it comes to defense exports.
On Sept. 11, the Italian government announced that the Kuwaiti government had agreed to acquire 28 Eurofighters, following a sales campaign led by Italy and its Eurofighter-building partner firm, Finmeccanica Alenia Aermacchi.
The €7 billion to €8 billion (US $7.9 billion to $9 billion) deal, which must still be ratified by the Kuwait parliament, was announced as the prime ministers of Italy and Kuwait met in Rome, and capped a marketing push that reflected growing synergies among Italy's politicians, armed forces and industry, officials said.
"This agreement rests on the quality of the product, but it was also the result of work by former Alenia CEO Giuseppe Giordo, current CEO Filippo Bagnato, Finmeccanica CEO Mauro Moretti and Gen. Pasquale Preziosa, the head of the Italian Air Force, since the Air Force will be involved in training," said Guido Crosetto, the head of Italian aerospace and defense industry group AIAD.
"Minister of Defense Roberta Pinotti and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi also played a role," he said.
Pinotti traveled to Kuwait three times to work on the deal, said an Italian defense source.
"We also have aircraft based in Kuwait in the operation against ISIS, which presented an opportunity to deepen ties," the source said.
However, on Sept. 16, Moretti urged the government to do more to assist sales.
"In this country there is no big tradition for this, even though we are growing," he told Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview.
AIAD has been pushing the government to take a bigger role in marketing, to the point of taking the lead from industry. In July, the Italian parliament handed more power to Italy's procurement office to negotiate exports, but plans are still being made, and the powers do not go far enough, said Crosetto.
"We want government-to-government deals, like the US and France," he said. "Countries ask us to do deals this way."
An Italian source knowledgeable of defense deals played down the government role in the Eurofighter agreement.
"This deal was clinched by Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi," he said. "The recent agreement simply framed an existing industrial deal," he added.
The source said the Italian government would need to handle the financial element of deals as well as the small print before it caught up with France and the US, which boasts its Foreign Military Sales program.
"Even the Russians do this, but we don't," he said. "Since Italy is smaller it should turn to government-to-government deals on a case-by-case basis, but the one thing you cannot do is be inconsistent over the course of a negotiation, showing up for government meetings then disappearing," he said.
Egypt was a case in point, the source said.
"We were the first to recognize the al-Sisi government and Prime Minister Renzi was the first to visit. But defense products were not offered, while France has sold Egypt Rafales and a FREMM frigate, which have been paid for by other Arab countries," he said.
"We don't know what they want or how the financing would work. Do we have surplus kit to offer? Can we offer training? We sent catalogues but have no working groups involved."
A second official who follows sales and declined to be named said the French were happy to use all channels to promote sales.
"They are much more aggressive and have decided that they would rather see an American firm win a competition than a European rival because they want to have Europe to themselves," he said.
The official said he subscribed to rumors that France lobbied Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, to persuade Poland to buy 70 Airbus multipurpose Caracal EC725 helicopters in a deal worth about €2.5 billion in April, over offerings from Italy's AgustaWestland and Sikorsky.
"The Italians and Sikorsky had manufacturing facilities in Poland, Airbus does not, yet it won the competition," he said.
At the time of the deal, Tomasz Siemoniak, chief of the Polish Ministry of Defence, denied the rumors of lobbying, claiming the Airbus helicopter had won on merit.
Italy and France have a mixed history when it comes to defense cooperation. The two nations set out to jointly build FREMM-class frigates, which they have now both deployed, but went separate ways on selling the vessels overseas, making them competitors on a program they launched together.
A joint effort to build torpedoes has also broken down over disagreements regarding control.
That has not stopped French and Italian firms DCNS and Fincantieri from reportedly planning the joint development of future surface vessels.