Lockheed Martin F-35: Invisible but hard to swallow.

Italian F-35's over Venice. Illustration by Roberto Zanella

During the final phase of the second world war, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters were a thorn in the side of the Italian Royal Air Force, and later the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana. Today, in a very contested election campaign, an aircraft by the same name, the F-35 Lightning II, has become a thorny political issue. The following is a translation of an article by Gianandrea Gaiani, which I am able to publish by courtesy of the author and the editors of the online daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana in which it originally appeared. Many thanks to J.J.P for reviewing the English text.
Your comments will be greatly appreciated.
Leonardo Pavese

Who needs the F-35, really?
by Gianandrea Gaiani

How many votes does defense spending really bring? The easy answer to this question seems to have stimulated Italian politicians to look for consensus, confronting in a populist and simplistic way the issue of military expenditures; and especially the contract for the acquisition of 90 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft, in the context of a program which will cost Italian taxpayers about 15 G€ (15 billion Euros, plus 2 G€ that have already been spent), in the next fifteen years.
Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the leftist coalition that is likely to win the February 2013 elections, saw fit to revisit the question in a demagogic way, stating that we should reduce the number of F-35’s because “…we have the ‘exiled’ [people who lost their jobs at a late age, but can’t receive a state pension yet]; long lines at public offices, and we’re cutting the funds for the disabled...”
The attempt to breach to the left and gain support among “pacifists” is obvious. It’s paradoxical that Mr. Bersani was the one to wade in against the purchase of an aircraft,  which was approved in 1996, and confirmed in 2007, by two center-left governments under Premier Romano Prodi; although it also received support from Prime Minister Berlusconi administrations and, lately, from the executive of Prime Minister Monti.
Regardless of the recent controversy, we’re sorry to see that, once again, defense-related issues are dealt with by Italian politicians in a very superficial way, and often with a lack of knowledge.
So called “pacifists” would like to cut defense spending, without realizing, in their ideological fury, that national defense is not a luxury, but it is the primary function of every state.  Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paola, and the Italian Air Force, have stated that the aircraft is indispensable; but nobody really understands for what, since nobody has ever outlined with precision what Italy requires from her armed forces, and against whom we should prepare for a possible conflict.
It is inevitable that eventually Italy will have to replace the aging Tornado, AMX, and AV-8B fighters; but even taking for granted that the F-35 will overcome all the defects that still affect it, are we sure that we’ll be able to afford it? Because it is not sufficient to state that the costs related to the U.S. aircraft are very high (and they will probably continue to grow) without adding that the Italian defense budget can barely find the money to purchase modern equipment, and to do that for several years now has been cutting the operating funds (that is, the funds for maintenance, fuel and training). Therefore, does it make sense to purchase the F-35’s just to keep them in storage for lack of fuel and maintenance, as it is already happening with many other aircraft, vehicles and ships? 

The very serious delays in the F-35 program, the out-of-control costs, the unsatisfactory performance and the plane’s recently discovered vulnerability to lightning strikes (funny, in an aircraft named Lightning) have already prompted the governments of Turkey, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Australia to freeze their orders, while Canada has cancelled its order for 65 F-35’s, assigning the choice of a new fighter to a competition open to several other aircraft.

Is it possible that in Italy the acquisition of the American aircraft must be considered something like a dogma about which opposing creeds battle? In recent years, Italy, with her European partners, spent billions to develop the capability to design, build, and export a fighter jet (the Eurofighter Typhoon) in competition with U.S. made aircraft. By joining the F-35 program, our industry will lose that capability and become a sub-contractor of the American corporation Lockheed Martin.

Italian Typhoons

That consideration alone should be enough to question the acquisition of the Lighting II. Furthermore, it would be wise to evaluate whether it makes sense to put ourselves completely in the hands of the United States, which will reserve to itself access to the most advanced technology employed in the aircraft, in this historical moment in which Washington’s global interests seem not coincide with ours. Also, why should we be the loyal customers of expensive and shaky American programs when President Obama applies the slogan “Buy American” to almost every defense contract and when, a few months ago, his administration even cut the order for Italian C-27J transport aircraft for the Air National Guard and for the Alenia G-222 destined for the Afghan armed forces? Very suspicious cuts indeed, because in both cases they favored the C-130J produced by Lockheed Martin.

The federal government of Germany, which spends about twice as much as Italy does for defense, decided not to purchase the F-35 and to employ only one fighter aircraft, the Typhoon, updated to carry out also the attack mission. With a first line of fighters based on one type, the Luftwaffe will bear costs lower than the costs faced by the Italian Air Force, which will field the air defense Typhoon alongside the attack F-35’s.



By making a choice like Germany did, we would better protect our industry and our workforce. We should limit the acquisition of the F-35’s to about twenty aircraft of the short take-off, vertical landing B version (which are really indispensable to equip the aircraft carrier Cavour) and replace the AV-8B’s in service today.  Those F-35B’s for the Italian Navy, could be leased in about ten years from the United States Marine Corps when, hopefully, most of the developmental problems of the aircraft will have been overcome.

Clearly, there are plenty of questions and options to open a serious debate, which would benefit both the taxpayers and the voters; but the Italian political class seems to have neither  the will nor the ability to step up to the plate.

Gianandrea Gaiani is a historian, war correspondent and the editor of the online magazine Analisi Difesa. If you're interested in other articles by G. Gaiani, please take a look at "When Green Shoots Blue" and "Libya Delivered?". Thank you very much.
Leonardo Pavese


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