Elisabetta Trenta assumed office as Italy’s Minister of Defense on June 1 of this year, and has already set about making changed to the nation’s military posture in keeping with her party’s populist tone. First, she announced a reduction in Italian troop counts in Afghanistan (dropping from 900 to 700) and on Friday, she announced plans to follow through on another promise her “5-Star” party made during the campaign: cutting ties with the American lead F-35 program.
The 5-Star party in Italy has long been critical of the nation’s plans to acquire a total of about 90 of the Lockheed Martin built fifth generation fighters — an aircraft touted by U.S. officials as the most capable air platform on the planet, and recognized the world over as the most expensive weapons program in history. Previous statements from officials within her party have indicated that 5-Star officials would prefer the funds were reallocated toward domestic social programs.
“We won’t buy any more F-35s,” Trenta told reporters during a televised interview on Friday. “We are assessing what to do regarding the contracts already in place.”
There are a number of reasons why Italy may still follow through with the order as it stands, including financial penalties written into the contract signed be the previous administration. As Trenta herself noted, canceling their order this early in the program could result in penalties that are nearly equal to the cost of simply taking delivery of the planes. If the orders are not canceled, Trenta insinuated that they may look to extend the timeline associated with Italy’s orders, allowing them to stretch the expense over a great period of time.
“No one is hiding the fact we have always been critical … In view of the existing contracts signed by the previous government, we are carrying out a careful assessment that exclusively considers the national interest,” she said.
Despite previous statements from her party indicating the intentions to funnel any savings back into Italy’s own economy, Trenta indicated that money saved by cutting the Italian F-35 program could instead go toward other European defense initiatives. This announcement comes on the tail of Trenta’s statements in June, reassuring the United States that Italy takes their alliance seriously and intends to meet their NATO mandated defense spending goal of 2% of the nation’s gross domestic product as quickly as possible.
“The U.S. is our historic ally, we have never doubted that,” she said after a meeting with President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton. During the June 26 meeting, she reportedly told Bolton that while Italy aims to meet that 2% figure, she wants to ensure it’s done in a certain way.
“We would also like our strong presence in military missions recognized as an added value,” she said, referencing the troop reduction in Afghanistan as well as ongoing plans for military operations in Niger and Libya.
“We don’t want to undercut stability or reduce support for Afghans. We want to start a change of pace, as established by the previous government, keeping at the same time the mission operative,” she said. “We don’t want to weaken the mission, so we will look for other partners to take over tasks like logistics.”
Earlier this year, the United States Air Force announced that they may need to reduce the total number of F-35s they have ordered as well, citing the high operational costs of the aircraft as a budgetary limitation. According to Air Force officials at the time, the expense associated with flying the aircraft will need to be reduced by a whopping 40% in order for the branch to be able to afford their entire original order.
Featured image: Lt. Col. George Watkins, the 34th Fighter Squadron commander, flies a combat-coded F-35A Lightning II aircraft past the control tower at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Sept. 17, 2015. During the sortie, the base’s first, Watkins conducted mission qualification training focusing on weapons employment, range familiarization and mission system proficiency. | U.S. Air Force photo/Alex R. Lloyd