ROME ― Italy’s new populist government may slow down but not reduce its order of F-35 fighter jets, while trimming its manpower in Afghanistan, Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta has told Defense News.

In one of her first interviews since taking office at the start of June, Trenta said Italy remained a faithful ally of the U.S., but added she was skeptical about sanctions imposed on Russia by the West.

A former defense academic at the Link University in Rome and a veteran of the Italian Army’s civil reserve unit, Trenta was named defense minister by a coalition government formed in June, which groups the anti-migrant League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

Five Star officials promised last year to scrap Italy’s purchase of 90 F-35 fighters, but Trenta said the new government would not cut orders, even if it might stretch out its purchase plan.

“It’s a program we inherited and we have lots of questions; that is why we will evaluate the program considering the industrial and technology benefits for national interest, as we are the new government,” she said.

Italian Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta attends a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Italian Republic (Republic Day) on June 2, 2018, in Piazza Venezia, in Rome. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)
Italian Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta attends a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Italian Republic (Republic Day) on June 2, 2018, in Piazza Venezia, in Rome. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

“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 said.

Foreign military invovlement

Trenta met U.S. national security adviser John Bolton on June 26 as he visited Rome, and she confirmed the new government’s strong ties with the U.S. “The U.S. is our historic ally, we have never doubted that,” she said.

Trenta said she told Bolton that Italy aims to reach NATO’s defense spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product. “But we would also like our strong presence in military missions recognized as an added value,” she said.

She said that presence would still be substantial despite the government’s plan to trim its headcount in Afghanistan from 900 to 700, if and when replacements could be found to step in from other nations.

“We don’t want to undercut stability or reduce support for Afghans. We want to start a change of pace, as established by the previous government, keeping at the same time the mission operative,” she said. “We don’t want to weaken the mission, so we will look for other partners to take over tasks like logistics.”

The minister said she asked Bolton for help launching a planned Italian military mission to Niger in Africa to help combat people smugglers who send migrants across the Sahara to Libya, where they embark on boats heading for Europe.

The mission was announced last year but has been blocked by the Niger government, she said.

Italian soldiers conduct a patrol during training at Camp Arena in Herat, Afghanistan, on Sept. 24, 2008. (Tech. Sgt. Laura Smith/U.S. Air Force)
Italian soldiers conduct a patrol during training at Camp Arena in Herat, Afghanistan, on Sept. 24, 2008. (Tech. Sgt. Laura Smith/U.S. Air Force)

She said she also asked Bolton to help Italy take a “leadership” role in bringing peace to lawless Libya, noting she would visit the country next month in hopes of meeting Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the military commander hostile to the United Nations-backed Tripoli government that is supported by Italy.

Italy has been irked by French diplomacy in Libya, including backing for Haftar and support for elections by year-end. The election plan, Trenta said, was “not the best thing to do — the U.S. has seen in Iraq what happens when you rush things.”

Butting heads

France and Italy have meanwhile bickered this month over differing plans to deal with migrants arriving in Europe, but Trenta said no amount of political arguing would derail a planned merger between the naval operations of Italian shipyard Fincantieri and France’s Naval Group.

“Both countries are planning on the deal going ahead — there has been no impact from the migration discussion,” she said.

The new government in Rome has not yet signed up to a French plan for a multinational rapid intervention force, which would contain fellow European Union members, but also the U.K., which is planning to leave the EU. France said it wants the initiative to exist separately to the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation initiative for security and defense.

Trenta said Italy would probably sign. “As a new government, we wanted to study it and make sure it does not weaken the EU PESCO initiative,” she said.

Italy’s new government rattled its European allies earlier this month when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would like to end sanctions that were imposed on Moscow after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Trenta shares his view. “We have to consider Italy’s strategic interests — sanctions have damaged Italian exports, and it would be a good idea to evaluate alternative instruments,” she said.

“We see the U.S. as an ally, but we don’t see Russia as a threat — we see it as an economic partner,” she said.