by Dr. Stephen Bryen***
Italy must decide whether to stay in the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) program. The F-35 is America’s newest fighter aircraft and it is going to be a vital defense asset globally. The new Italian government is getting in the mood to trash the program in that country. Their idea is based on a badly flawed ideology. A wrong decision will expose Italy to considerable risk in the future. Italian politicians have not been honest with the Italian people about the significance of this program for Italian national security, nor have the told the truth about the economic and employment implications of dropping out.
Italy is a member of the NATO alliance. NATO, which has been gradually weakening over the years as the existential threat to Europe lessened, is again in the spotlight because of the turmoil in the Ukraine and the risk that the disease of instability might spread. Today there are clear echoes of Munich in the air; the consequences of weakness at this critical juncture are plain for all to see. Europe talks and does nothing. America does the same.
But a weak and indecisive, wobbly American government is exactly why Europe should be trying to shore up its main patron and protector. In the end NATO is only viable with American leadership. But if the European instinct is to “Let George Do It” meaning George Washington, then that is a true assurance of risk and failure.
The reality is that the European front line will always be the European countries, not the United States. And Europe must be strong. In times of austerity, this is hard to achieve, and the Europeans have over the years left most of the responsibility to Washington while they charged off their defense programs to social welfare and industrial subsidies.
This is no longer possible for two reasons: America no longer has the infinite resources it seemed to once have. It has squandered trillions on peripheral wars, and the American economy is not what it once was. American largess and willingness to carry more than its fair share of the burden is, now, over.
Italy has a fine air force and a top notch aerospace industry. It not only produces aircraft and equipment for its own use, but its products are sold abroad. Today the Italian C-27J is flying with the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Special Forces. Its hot-stick advanced trainer called the M-346 in Italy (the TF-100 in the US) is the leading candidate to replace the old trainers in the U.S. inventory. These programs are good for both countries, because they create jobs and save defense dollars in the U.S. that would otherwise have to go into platform development (so called nonrecurring R&D expenses). But if Italy opts out of the F-35 program, can Italy hope to win the trainer competition? Will Italy be regarded as a reliable partner?
Italy has sticker shock on the cost of acquisition of the F-35. Americans have the same sticker shock. How can it be mitigated?
As an investor in the JSF program ($1 billion+), Italy has already gained support for producing parts of the aircraft and for a final Final Assembly and Checkout (FACO) facility. But buying the aircraft does put a tremendous burden on the country which cannot be denied.
Israel recently bought the Italian M-346 advanced trainer in an offset deal. A wise Italian government could pursue the same idea with the United States. While America “officially” does not support offsets, deals like this happen all the time.
The new government of Italy is being pushed around by a bunch of ideologues who don’t want to spend a Euro or a Lira or a Dollar on defense. They are leading Italy’s new Prime Minister into a black hole. Ruining Italy’s reputation and diminishing its position in NATO is not the way to kick start a non-elected government. Mr. Renzi, the new Prime Minister, should think before he jumps.
***Full disclosure: The author is a former senior official in the U.S. Department of Defense and the former President of Finmeccanica North America, Italy leading defense, aerospace and high technology company. The author is not currently connected in any way with the U.S. Defense Department, Finmeccanica, or any other organization with any interest in the JSF program.