June 17, 2013
Credit: Lockheed Martin
After a whirlwind of construction, next month Italy is planning to induct its first F-35A into a brand new $1 billion final assembly and check-out facility (FACO), fabricated specifically for the single-engine, stealthy fighter.
While the military sees the ribbon-cutting as a major milestone in its plan to modernize Italy's skilled aerospace workforce, the leadership of its top aircraft maker, Alenia Aeronautica, is far less excited as debate continues in Italy's political arena about actually purchasing the stealthy Lockheed Martin fighter.
Despite inconsistent political support for the program, Italy's military leadership is eagerly moving ahead, and not only with plans to conduct final assembly of Italian F-35As at Cameri. The military is also in talks to produce 55 of the fighters for the Netherlands, and are offering the facility as an alternative to Lockheed Martin's massive FACO in Fort Worth.
The Mediterranean country's ministry of defense funded construction of the facility near Milan at Cameri AB, the existing hub for Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon repair and overhaul. The hope was to assemble around 250 fighters (including the Italy's original plan for 131 F-35s and the Netherlands' original plan for 85) to break even on the investment, according to senior Italian military officers. Production expectations may have waned owing to cost increases in the aircraft's per-unit price, but the Italian military's support for the F-35 and the FACO has not.
The true value of the investment, measured in economic impact and jobs, will come with decades of repair and overhaul work for the F-35, the officers say. And, they see the Cameri FACO as the leading contender for a regional maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) center for European and Israeli aircraft, according to Lt. Gen. Domenico Esposito, who heads the Italian air force's procurements at the general directorate for air armaments. Esposito admits the investment is a gamble, as there is no guarantee of either full-rate FACO work or long-term maintenance work in volume. “It is a big risk for us,” Brig. Gen. Guiseppe Lupoli, chief of fixed-wing procurement for the Italian air force, tells Aviation Week. “We would like to keep the aerospace industry [relevant in Italy, and] F-35 improves the technology.”
“What is important to me? To enter the project. In one or two decades we will improve our capability,” Esposito says. Italian defense officials estimate there could be $18.6 billion in economic opportunities for local businesses with potential MRO work.
For the defense ministry, the FACO represents its hope that Italy can improve its edge in aerospace, since the F-35 incorporates stealth, integrated avionics and advanced onboard processing in a way that legacy Italian fighters such as the Tornado and Typhoon do not.