Internal politics in Italy have prompted and to dash long-held plans for a ceremony to celebrate the opening of the Italian final assembly and checkout (FACO) facility for the stealthy fighter.
The event — which was to be attended by senior (AW&ST, June 17).and defense ministry officials, top industry executives, and U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program manager in the Pentagon — was slated for July 18
But the companies recently decided not to conduct such a conspicuous event, in light of past political wrangling over the expensive F-35 program in Italy, according to program officials. They requested anonymity because of sensitivity over the decision.
The Italian parliament voted June 26 to approve spending for the planned purchase of 90 F-35s, but directed that any changes to those plans must be directly approved by future parliaments. This was a compromise made to quell concerns of opposition to the program; detractors cited the F-35’s high cost and development delays as a reason to consider scrapping the effort in favor of buying more.
The Italian Ministry of Defense views the vote as a win and is eager to move forward with the program. But opposition came to a crescendo this year just as Alenia and Lockheed had planned to commemorate the defense ministry’s $1 billion investment in building the first FACO outside of Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth site.
Multiple sources in industry and the U.S. and Italian governments confirmed the ceremony has been “postponed.” However, some officials suggest it could simply be canceled to avoid drawing ire from F-35 detractors in Italy who are angry over the vote to move forward with the program.
Though the ceremony is off, final assembly operations will begin as planned July 18. Officials will load the aft, center and forward fuselage sections into the Electronic Mate and Alignment System at the FACO at Cameri Air Base in Northern Italy, marking the official start of final assembly there.
Italy’s government opted to take the risk to fund the assembly facility to allow Italian industry — including Alenia and a host of small businesses – to work with the high-technology of the F-35. The bulk of the money to be made on the F-35, however, is not likely in final assembly, but in long-term maintenance of the aircraft.
The defense ministry constructed the facility to allow for long-term maintenance, repair and overhaul of the single-engine fighter. The government hopes Cameri will become a regional maintenance facility for aircraft in Europe and Israel, providing aerospace jobs for decades.
The first F-35 to roll off that assembly line is slated for delivery to Amendola Air Base in Italy in 2016.