ROME — Italy’s audit court has given measured approval to the F-35 program, claiming in a detailed new report that Italy needs to be on board despite price hikes, delays and the country’s currently low workshare.
Any moves to reduce Italy’s purchase of 90 aircraft, given the “notable” price rise of the aircraft, would deprive Italy of access to vital technology “not currently available in the country” and risk cutting work at the country’s F-35 final assembly and maintenance line, the report argues.
Looking at the bottom line, the court said that Italy had invested 3.5 billion in the program to the end of 2016 and another 600 million euros this year — so much money it cannot afford to pull out now.
The report stated that Rome’s “exposure up to now in terms of financial, instrumental and human resources is fundamentally linked to the continuation of the project.”
The court, which monitors Italy’s government spending, warned that the 2012 decision to cut Italy’s F-35 order from 131 to 90 aircraft may have saved 5.4 billion euros but cost 3.1 billion euros in lost contracts, particularly the construction of wingboxes by Italian defense giant Leonardo, which fell from 1,215 sets to 835 sets.
The report was produced ahead of Italy’s general election, which must be held by next May, before which F-35 spending is likely to be hotly debated, with the anti-establishment Five Star party calling for the program to be axed, industry officials bemoaning low workshare and Italian Air Force officials warning Italy must fight to keep a strong role in the program.
The carefully balanced report is likely to give ammunition to both champions and opponents of the aircraft and produces new data about Italy’s investment to date.
The court argues that Italy’s workshare on the program “has not yet reached the expected level,” although delays to production are partly to blame.
Around 1,600 staff are working on the program now, compared to range of between 3,586 to 6,395 previously forecast by authorities, the report stated.
Italy’s assembly line at Cameri Air Base is being underemployed given Italy’s reduction in purchases as well as a diminished order of aircraft by Holland, which plans to assemble its F-35s there.
Although able to produce two aircraft a month, the line will only likely reach peak production of 10 to 13 aircraft annually between 2020 and 2022, the report said.
Meanwhile, spending by Italy on the line stood at 819 million euros by the end of 2016, the report said.
Italy’s deal with the U.S. to offer Cameri as a heavy maintenance base for Europe will offer the base a future after planes are assembled, but its future success was put in doubt by the exclusion of Italian firms from recent contract awards for maintenance, the report said.
“Currently, there is uncertainty over the competing role of the U.K. base at Marham, which has obtained, in order to ensure national sovereignty, maintenance and repair work for the U.K. fleet,” the report said.
That said, if new orders for aircraft in Europe arrive in the next five years, Cameri would be well placed to benefit, the judges added, although any drop, or even uncertainty over Italian orders, could weaken Cameri as it competes against other maintenance centers.
The court criticized the request made by Italy’s Parliament in 2012 to halve the amount of money that Italy is spending on the program.
That had led to a slowdown in orders placed by Italy up to 2021 and a savings of 1.2 billion euros between 2015 and 2019.
Eight aircraft are due for delivery in 2017 compared to the 10 originally planned, while 22 will be delivered by 2021, down from 29, and spending on bases at Grottaglie and Decimomannu has been suspended, the report said.
But any savings will be temporary, given the overall number of aircraft on order has not changed, meaning there will be “no saving in the long term,” the report stated.
To cope with the slowdown of orders, Italy is planning to renegotiate its deal with the U.S. under which four of the Italian planes now delivered are involved in pilot training in the U.S.
Getting those planes back to join the few now flying in Italy would allow the Italian Air Force to achieve an operational number of aircraft by the end 2018, instead of the currently forecast 2021. “At the same time, Italian pilot training would take place in Italy,” the judges stated.
Turning to workshare, the court said 33 Italian firms were now working on F-35-related contracts. The value of those contracts was seen as reaching $14.2 billion by 2038, including $6.8 billion worth of contracts for Leonardo on its wing box work, $1.1 billion to assemble 90 Italian aircraft and 300 million to assemble 29 Dutch aircraft.
However, to date, contracts awarded only totalled $2.31 billion, 79 percent of which were received by Leonardo, and mostly related to work readying Cameri, building wings and assembling the first aircraft.
The report refers to concerns over the transfer of sensitive data acquired by F-35 aircraft to the U.S.
“By the end of 2017, there will be the implementation of a national filter (hardware and software produced by an Italian firm and placed under exclusively national control), which will allow the automatic blocking of messages and data where transmission is not wanted,” the report said.
“To that national equipment there will be added, in 2018, a more general multinational solution, consisting of a software filter,” the report said.