PARIS --- The new Italian government’s main priority in the field of defense is whether it will confirm Italy’s long-delayed order for F-35 fighters, which according to Italian press reports must be officially awarded to the Pentagon by the end of September, failing which Italy’s delivery slots would be lost.
Given that this leaves barely three weeks, it is probable that the new minister’s main priority will be first to prepare the draft defense budget for 2020, and then to take a final position on the F-35 order, which will leave little time to take a deliberate, long-term decision on how to proceed with the next-generation fighter.
The F-35 decision was delayed by an unresolved struggle between the previous government’s two parties: The Five Stars movement of Luigi Di Maio, appointed foreign minister in the new Cabinet sworn in on Thursday, is ideologically opposed to ordering additional fighters. The Lega party of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, on the other hand, considers that the technology and jobs it brings with it make it an indispensable investment in the country’s future.
Historically, the Partito Democratico (PD) of which incoming defense minister Lorenzo Guerini is a member, has been a strong proponent of buying the full complement of 90 F-35s, but this was attributed by some to a personal position by PD chief Matteo Renzi more than to an official party line.
Next-generation fighter: Project Tempest or SCAF/ FCAS?
Italy was on the cusp of joining the UK Tempest program for the development of a next-generation fighter jet when its government fell last week, and it is not yet clear whether the new government and the new defense minister will confirm their predecessor’s decision.
Italian media reports, including the daily La Stampa, reported earlier this week that the previous defense minister, Elisabetta Trenta, had agreed in principle to join the Tempest program, and had so informed her British counterpart Ben Wallace during a bilateral meeting in Helsinki last Thursday, on the sidelines of an EU ministerial meeting.
La Stampa added that the relevant agreement was to have been signed on Sept. 11 at the DSEi trade show in London.
However, Trenta did not survive the recent political upheavals, and was replaced by Lorenzo Guerini, a member of the Partito Democratico in the second Conte government sworn in on Thursday. Given the timing, it is improbable that any decision on the next-generation fighter will be hurried through in a matter of days by the new government.
Whereas the Italian government had immediately expressed interest in joining the Tempest project when it was announced in July 2018, it had never made a formal decision on the matter.
Before the summer, Trenta had promised Italian industry that a decision on the future fighter would be taken by September, but none was announced and the ministry, in parallel, also maintained contacts with France and Germany which, together with Spain, are now working to prepare demonstrator contracts for their New-Generation Fighter and its engines.
Trenta was under political pressure to take a position on the future fighter mostly to end uncertainties about the government’s intentions in military aviation, and possibly to compensate a major cut in F-35 orders feared by industry as it was a prominent plank of her party’s election platform.
Her successor, however, will feel no such pressure.
Italy already has a foothold in the British next-generation fighter project through Leonardo’s United Kingdom subsidiaries, which are already members of Team Tempest, the industry team led by BAE Systems in charge of the program. Leonardo operates seven plants in the UK.
Italy has also been offered a seat by France and Germany on their competing SCAF/FCAS project, so there is no real urgency for Italy to decide which way to jump.
Both programs are at their preliminary stages and only time will tell which one is better suited to Italy’s military requirements, schedule, budget, industrial work-share and employment priorities.