In an interview with Italian Magazine Formiche, the country’s defence minister Lorenzo Guerini said he was committed to the F-35 programme despite calls to postpone the purchase of the jets to pay for the response to Covid-19.
The country’s Five Star Party has called for the government to cut defence spending and pausing the F-35 programme for a year, however, Guerini said modernisation of the country’s air force ‘ensures our nation is secure’.
Guerini said in times of recession there is ‘always a risk’ that defence is not seen as a priority and that a drop in spending often happens. However, he added that the public ‘must be aware’ that slashing defence spending mainly affects research and development. He said defence spending cuts also damage highly qualified jobs, and would ‘impoverish’ industrial capabilities.
Guerini told Formiche: “For this reason, we need to involve the entire country in a broader debate on defence. Our citizens should be persuaded that there is a piece of Italy’s competitiveness in the industry and that maintaining procurement programs equals preserving our capacity to defend the nation and the system of alliances we are part of.
“From this perspective, the JSF Programme, which started twenty years ago, made a 5th generation aircraft—the top tier of what is available today—available to our Armed Forces. A few months ago, I confirmed that the program would continue.”
Italy is a Level 2 partner on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Programme with the country on track to purchase a total of 90 F-35s. Originally the country was looking to acquire 131 F-35s, however, the order was cut in 2012 as part of a redistribution of funds in response to the country’s sovereign debt crisis.
Italy is the site of the only F-35 Final Assembly and Checkout (FACO) in Europe. The Leonardo-managed facility in Cameri is being used to assemble F-35s for Italy and the Netherlands. The plant was temporarily shut down during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Guerini told Formiche that defence spending represented ‘extraordinary economic leverage’ adding that it is an ‘indispensable investment to guarantee our security’.
Guerini said: “Therefore, in this phase, we need to exploit the full potential of the national defence industry, a sector which is certainly rich in diverse small and medium enterprises but also characterized by two top players of reference, with a relevant international presence.
“The recent success of Fincantieri in the US, which follows another important performance of Leonardo in the same market, is the best evidence of this. Investments in defence are a useful tool to pursue growth and to relaunch the country, given the higher rate of innovation than in any other sector and the impact on exports—which according to recent estimates account to 70% of the entire production.”
Last Friday the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) said Italy’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had shrunk by 5.3% in the first quarter of 2020, with predictions that the country’s economy could contract even more as the pandemic continues to damage world economies. In Q2 economists have predicted Italy’s GDP will shrink by between 9% and 10.5% adding more pressure on calls to cut defence expenditure to divert spending elsewhere.