PARIS --- Italy's participation in the F-35 fighter program is still being reviewed, Italian news agency ANSA reported from Rome on Thursday, quoting unidentified defense ministry sources.
"The program will be revised while respecting commitments made and also taking into account the national interest," they said.
The sources said the outcome of the assessment will be made public in the first few months of next year, which probably means during the first quarter but could also stretch into the second quarter.
“We believe talks with the USA are a priority," the sources said, adding "so far this government has not spent a single euro to buy new F-35s" as they had promised during the election campaign during the spring.
But rifts are appearing within the government about what Italy should do about the program. Angelo Tofalo, one of two Undersecretaries of Defense, spoke of “distorted conceptions” about the aircraft and their technologies, which he said are considered among the best in the world.
This statement prompted an immediate reaction by Luigi Di Maio, one of two deputy Prime Ministers and the leader of the Five Stars Movement that has formed a coalition government with the League of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
“We continue to be very, very perplexed by the F-35 fighter program,” Di Maio said, adding that “praising a technology is not necessarily a commitment to pay for it.”
Since it took office in June, the current Italian government has been struggling to reconcile Italy’s historical commitment to the F-35 program, the disappointing industrial return it has received on its very large investment, and the attraction of the program’s claimed technological advance with the Five Star Movement’s pre-election promise not to spend another euro on the program.
Conflicting statements by Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta and her two undersecretaries on whether Italy would at least complete current orders, and the fact that no clear policy has emerged after seven months, clearly show the government’s dilemma, as it wants to benefit from the F-35’s technologies without increasing its investment.
At the heart of the problem lies the uncomfortable fact that the 5 Stars Movement seems to have misunderstood the program’s status when it first made the pledge not to spend another euro.
At the time, Italian ministers remained committed to buying 90 (down from the original 138), which most Italians assumed had already been ordered, whereas only 13 had, with the rest due to follow spread over a decade or so.
The issue is more uncomfortable for the government that, since the conclusion of the full-scale development phase, program participants are no longer under any obligation to the program, and so can freely determine the size and the timing of their orders.
The fact that the F-35 review, commissioned by Trenta during the summer, has now been kicked into the first quarter of 2019 shows clearly that the 5 Stars has still not finalized its position, and that its partner in the governing coalition, the League, does not appear to be particularly hostile to the F-35 program.
In fact, little has changed since June 15, when we last looked at Italy’s status in the F-35 program, except that order numbers have changed slightly, as Italy has ordered three additional aircraft (Two F-35As and one F-35B) in the Lot 12 initial production contract, awarded Nov. 14 and worth $22.7 billion.