The first F-35B to be assembled outside the U.S. was rolled out in Italy on Friday at a ceremony at the country's assembly line, attended by the country's top military brass.
The aircraft, BL-1, will fly for the first time in late August and is due to be delivered to the Italian ministry of defense in November, Lockheed Martin said in a statement. An Italian pilot will then fly the jet in early 2018 to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, for "Electromagnetic Environmental Effects certification," Lockheed Martin said.
It will also take a role in pilot training in the U.S., an Italian source added.
The next Italian F-35B aircraft is scheduled for delivery in November 2018.
Italy has already delivered seven F-35A aircraft from its Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility at Cameri in northern Italy, three of which are now flying from the Italian Air Force's Amendola Air Force base in southern Italy. The other four are participating in pilot training at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.The three now in operation have flown more than 100 hours from the base, including tanking with the Italian Air Force's B767 tankers and sorties alongside Italian Eurofighters, M-346 jet trainers and the Air Force's new Gulfstream Airborne Early Warning aircraft.
Two more F-35As are expected to be delivered from Cameri to Amendola this year, one in July, and the other in the fourth quarter. Another milestone: an F-35A assembled at Cameri made the type's first transatlantic crossing in February last year.
Cameri — which is the only F-35B assembly line outside the US — is due to produce 30 F-35Bs for the Italian Air Force and Navy and 60 F-35As for the Italian Air Force, as well as 29 F-35As for the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
Lockheed Martin said there were now 800 staff at the facility, which is owned by the Italian government and operated by Italian state defense firm Leonardo, partnered with Lockheed Martin.
In 2014, the 101 acre base was named by the U.S. DoD as its F-35 Heavy Airframe Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul and Upgrade facility for the European region.
Despite such milestones, the head of Italy's aerospace industry association, Guido Crosetto, said earlier this year the U.S. had "broken promises" made to Italy about its share of maintenance work when it opted to hand a hefty share of work to the U.K.
Spending on the F-35 also remains a sensitive political issue in Italy, which is still struggling to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis. Italy’s governing Democratic Party has come under fire for sticking with the program and appears to want give the aircraft a low profile with elections due by the first half of next year.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.