ROME – Italy’s defense minister has thrown his weight behind the F-35 program to counter demands from within his coalition government to suspend purchases of the aircraft to help Italy’s coronavirus-stricken economy.

Lorenzo Guerini said he “confirmed that the program would continue,” after calls from Italy’s Five Star party to halt F-35 purchases for a year as Italy seeks cash to help rebound from the virus, which has killed 33,000 in Italy.

In an interview with Italian publication Formiche, Guerini said defense spending was often slashed during economic crises, but claimed cuts to Italy’s planned 90-aircraft buy would hurt high-tech jobs and damage an industrial sector which “offers very significant economic returns to our nation.”

Italy has currently taken delivery of 15 F-35 aircraft including 12 F-35A’s and three F-35B’s. Final assembly of the aircraft occurs at Italy’s own facility at Cameri Air Base in the north of the country, which is due to become a maintenance hub for the aircraft.

Guerini hails from the center-left Democratic Party, which is a minority partner with the Five Star party in a coalition government formed last year. Previously, Five Star had governed alongside the anti-migrant League party.

Five Star has had a turbulent relationship with the F-35 program. Prior to first entering government in 2018 it vowed to scrap the program altogether, before giving ambiguous signals about the aircraft once it was in power.

Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, which started in late February and prompted a strict, nationwide shut-down, has only now eased, with most restrictions on movement dropped on May 18.

But after two months of lockdown the economy is in tatters, from manufacturing to services to tourism, which accounts for 13 percent of GDP. The government has been slow off the mark to pay furlough wages and economists see GDP shrinking by up to ten percent this year.

In late March, 50 Five Star members of parliament signed a motion backing a suspension of ongoing F-35 purchases for one year to free cash for health spending. “We would also consider renegotiating and resizing this program,” one Five Star member in the group said at the time.

In his interview, Guerini backed F-35 but also supported Italy’s historical alliance with the United States and NATO, which was thrown into doubt by an April poll asking Italians which countries they considered “Friends”.

Some 52 percent indicated China, followed by Russia on 32 percent and the United States on 17 percent. Compared to a similar survey carried out in 2019, China leaped 42 percent, Russia by 17 percent, while the U.S. dropped 12 percent.

Asked which country Italy should ally with in the future, 36 percent said China while only 30 percent said the United States.

The survey followed very visible visits by Chinese and Russian doctors to Italy to help during the virus outbreak.

Last year, Italy announced plans to sign up to China’s controversial Belt and Road global trade routes plan, incurring criticism from U.S. diplomats, who warned the program was designed to help China more than its partners.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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