ROME — With the release of final funding this year, Italy is due to achieve a minimum capability with its MEADS antimissile system, capping a long and sometimes fraught development program.
Following the release of €3.1 million ($3.5 million) in its 2016 defense budget, the Italian defense ministry said it would wrap up development of the system this year, having spent a total of €595 million, or $672 million.
"This is the last money to be spent," an Italian defense source said.
However, speculation is mounting as to whether Italy will provide additional money to press on with the program and keep in step with fellow partner Germany, which has opted to order the system.
"The Air Force is currently weighing their needs against a currently constrained procurement budget," said Gregory Kee, MEADS director of international business development at prime contractor Lockheed Martin. "It is just a question of when Italy is able to rejoin the program," he said.
Italy originally took a 17 percent share in the program with MEADS partners Germany and the US, only to see the US pull out. Poland then mulled adopting the system before opting for Raytheon's Patriot, before Germany agreed to acquire the MEADS system instead of Patriot in 2015.
At the Berlin Air Show in Germany this month, Lockheed and Martin and MBDA – the industrial partners on the program -- said they hoped to finish talks for the $4.5 billion deal with Germany by year's end.
Germany has set tough milestones for the program and Raytheon has said it remains in talks to sell Patriot to Berlin should MEADS fail to live up to its billing.
In Italy, with the last round of funding this year, the country has reached what is known as "minimum engagement capability", meaning it will own one launcher, one radar and one command-and-control shelter.
Speaking at the Berlin show this month, MBDA Germany CEO Thomas Homberg said he was confident Italy would push on with the MEADS program.
An Italian defense source said Italy already has a role in the German program. "Italy is a design authority on the missile and the engagement chain of the system in use by the Germans," the source said.
The Italians "want to build on their investment in the system," said Lockheed's Kee. "Consultations are taking place between Germany and Italy at the government level – Italy is extremely interested in a further collaboration in the context of continuing the cooperation and would like to contribute its own MEADS-based program," he said.
Germany has chosen to integrate its own Iris-T missile into the MEADS system as well as the PAC-3 missile, but Kee said, "It is premature to speculate on what secondary missile Italy might procure."
The Italian source said Italy "may possibly consider a second missile, but it would unlikely be the Iris-T."
As Italy ponders the future evolution of its embryonic MEADS capability, the battle in Europe between MEADS and Patriot has continued.
After opting for Patriot in 2015, Poland elected a new government which said in February it was back in talks with Lockheed Martin about MEADS as part of a process of reviewing all procurement decisions made by the previous administration.
Last November, Holland said it would upgrade its existing Patriot setup instead of buying a new system like MEADS.
Earlier this year Turkey was reportedly considering MEADS after deciding not to buy an antimissile defense system from China.
As Italy's central defense procurement office juggles funds to see if it can proceed with the procurement of more MEADS batteries, it will itself undergo an upheaval following a decision to move it out of offices in the center of Rome to an air base on the city's outskirts.
Following the publication of Italy's new white paper on defense, which called for a unification under one roof of Italy's procurement offices, the central office will be joined at the Centocelle base by the individual procurement offices of the Army, Navy and Air Force, which have hitherto been housed at the headquarters of their respective services.
The massing of procurement officials at Centocelle, which is home to Italy's joint operational command, is part of a bid by defense minister Roberto Pinotti to create synergies between the armed forces which have long been jealous of their own autonomy.