ROME — Italy will stretch out the order of F-35 fighter jets, buying six or seven of the aircraft in the next five years instead of the previously planned 10 jets, a government source told Defense News.
The decision follows a review of the program by Italy’s populist government, which took office in June and is mulling defense spending cuts to pay for social welfare programs and cover tax cuts.
The source said the plan did not envisage a reduction in orders, merely a slowdown of intake, which would leave the decision of the total F-35 purchase to a future government. Previous governments planned to buy 60 F-35As and 30 F-35Bs for a total of 90 aircraft.
The new government will focus on spending plans over its five-year mandate and not beyond, the source said, adding that discussions are underway with the U.S. about the change in schedule.
The decision on the slowdown keeps with Italian policy on the F-35 set out by Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta after she took office in June.
“What I would like to do is lighten the load, since we have other spending commitments in Europe. We will try to stretch out deliveries instead of cutting the order, which would reduce offsets and mean penalties,” she told Defense News at the time.
Italy has taken delivery of 10 F-35As and one F-35B. Two of the "A" models as well as the "B" model are being used for training in the U.S., while eight "A" models are now based at the Italian Air Force’s base in Amendola, southern Italy.
Trenta was tapped for office by the Five Star party, one of two political parties in Italy’s current coalition government. Five Star politicians took a hostile line toward the F-35 program before taking office, at one point promising to scrap it.
However, a defense spending document released last month suggests the government will maintain spending on the program in the next two years, with €766 million (U.S. $874 million) due to be spent in 2019 and €783 million in 2020. Those figures should be treated as provisional until the overall budget is signed in Parliament in the coming weeks.
Five Star politicians have also shown hostility toward another U.S. defense program — the ground station planned in Sicily to support the Mobile User Objective System, or MUOS, network, a U.S. Navy-run satellite network providing voice and data communications to U.S. military personnel and platforms around the world, even when they are under thick forest canopies.
Long held up by legal challenges in Sicily amid health fears, sources have said the MUOS antenna in Sicily could soon see final approval from the Italian government.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.