By TOM KINGTON
ROME — Eight months after the Italian parliament suspended new orders of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), members of the country’s biggest political party may try to halve the total purchase.
A source within the center-left Democratic Party said the members were preparing a policy document for approval in parliament which could seek to cut Italy’s planned purchase of JSFs from 90 to around 45. The country has already reduced its total buy from the originally planned 131 aircraft.
But a second source said that debate inside the party is still continuing, and that the final document may merely threaten a cut if Italy does not obtain better conditions on the U.S.-led program.
Both sources said the document — which could be ready this month — would strive to make Italy invest in the multirole, ground attack version of the Eurofighter. Italy, a partner in the Lockheed Martin JSF program, has hitherto shown relatively little interest in the European plane.
“We are really looking to push for European defense integration,” said the second source.
The Democratic Party is currently a partner in a coalition government led by party member Enrico Letta. In December, the party elected a new secretary, Matteo Renzi, who has been tapped as a candidate to win elections and form a Democratic Party government next year.
Renzi, who has in the past talked about cutting JSF purchases, would need to approve the evolving party policy document on defense before it is turned into a resolution for voting on in parliament, where the Democratic Party already has a majority in the lower house.
The first source said that 75 percent of Democratic Party members of parliament want to scrap the JSF program altogether as Italy struggles through an economic crisis. Recent criticism by the Pentagon’s top testing office has also spurred opposition to the program, he said.
The final report, he said, could call for a “drastic cut” in F-35 orders, potentially as much as half.
But the second source suggested the move to cut — or not cut — could hinge on whether Italy can wring better work share, better technology transfer and lower prices from the program. The source also suggested that savings could be found on other programs as an alternative to JSF cuts, such as the army digitalization program. An early draft of the report complains that the program costs too much and lacks interoperability with NATO standards.
The report follows a series of hearings in parliament’s two defense commissions about Italian military spending, held in the wake of the June vote by parliament to suspend further JSF orders.
Called to speak in September, Finmeccanica CEO Alessandro Pansa appeared underwhelmed by the firm’s work on the JSF program. “Finmeccanica will not build its future as an operator of avant-garde technology by supplying parts of large aircraft,” he said.
Assembly work on Italy’s JSFs at the country’s Final Assembly and Check Out line at Cameri airbase in northern Italy has meanwhile proceeded according to schedule since kicking off last July, said Debra Palmer, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager for the FACO.
An Italian defense source said Italian officials are proceeding with the procurement of 14 aircraft which were covered by full or initial industrial agreements signed before the vote last June. Three of the aircraft come from Low Rate Initial Production batch 6, three from LRIP 7, four for LRIP 8 and four from LRIP 9, including one F-35B jump-jet variant. The defense source said that even if just long-lead items had been ordered for aircraft before the vote, the ministry felt justified in pushing ahead with their full procurement.
Palmer said that Lockheed Martin now had work “locked in” from Italy to deliver three LRIP 6 jets to Italy as well as three LRIP 7 jets and two from LRIP 8, all of the F-35A conventional take off and landing model.
The components of the first aircraft, known as AL-1, are now emerging from the Electronic Mate and Alignment system, one of four at the base, which is run jointly by Alenia and Lockheed Martin and bankrolled by the Italian government.
Engine and electronics testing, including checks on the aircraft’s low observation signature, will begin shortly, with first flights and delivery in 2015, said Palmer.
Work on the second aircraft to be assembled started in November, with the third to start in March and the fourth in July. “All major components have arrived for AL-3 and some for AL-4 are arriving now,” said Palmer.
Alenia Aermacchi is meanwhile stepping up its work on JSF wings at Cameri, with the first two full wing sets destined for US F-35s now in production.
With Italy dropping from 131 aircraft to 90, and The Netherlands— which has agreed to assemble its jets at Cameri — ordering 37 jets instead of the planned 85, Palmer said Cameri “will not have the rate of production originally planned,” but suggested the Dutch order could yet rise. “When they ordered F-16s, they did it in tranches, and we think they could do that again.”
She said other European countries could yet be drawn to Cameri due to the savings from not having to fly new operational aircraft across the Atlantic flanked by tankers and support aircraft.
“The purchase price of the aircraft from Lockheed Martin will be the same regardless of the assembly location,” she said.