(Reuters) – Lockheed Martin Corp and the Italian military this week scrapped plans for a public ceremony marking the opening of an assembly plant for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter after bitter debate about the warplanes in Italy’s parliament.
Orlando Carvalho, head of Lockheed’s aeronautics business, and Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, who runs the F-35 program for the Pentagon, had planned to attend the ceremony, which was scheduled for July 18, along with Italian officials.
Lockheed spokesman Joe LaMarca said the ceremony was cancelled at the request of the Italian defense ministry, but workers were continuing to assemble the first F-35 at the plant near Milan.
“At the request of the Italian Ministry of Defense, the July 18 public ceremony recognizing the start of F-35 assembly operations at the Final Assembly and Checkout (FACO) facility in Cameri has been cancelled,” LaMarca said. He gave no explanation.
Lockheed and its suppliers are building three models of the new warplane for the U.S. military and eight international partners: Britain, Canada, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. Japan and Israel have also placed orders for the radar-evading single-engine jet.
The U.S. military and its allies plan to buy over 3,000 of the jets in coming decades to replace over a dozen warplanes now in use around the world. The Pentagon has said it expects to spend $392 billion to buy 2,443 jets in coming years, making the F-35 its biggest weapons program.
Several of the partner countries, including Canada and Denmark, are revisiting their planned purchases after a series of cost overruns and other issues.
Italy’s ruling coalition averted a split over a motion to scrap its purchase of 90 F-35 jets last month by agreeing to seek parliament’s approval before going ahead with further spending on the program. An opposition motion in favor of abandoning the F-35 was defeated.
Italy plans to spend 11.8 billion euros ($15.43 billion) on the jets over 45 years, starting in 2015.
The deal includes maintenance contracts for state-controlled defense group Finmeccanica, as Italy’s aerospace industry is a development partner in the F-35 project and Italy has already invested about 2 billion euros in it.
Last year, Italy cut its F-35 order to 90 warplanes from the 131 it had originally agreed to buy, a move it said would save 5 billion euros as it sought to reduce defense spending to shore up its accounts during the economic slump.