Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Italy and the F-35: what is actually happening?

Press in Italy and abroad has gone into a frenzy over the news that Italy "will further cut its F-35 order, even halving it". But reality is a bit different. 
Big cuts might be coming. Or might not. 

Prime minister Renzi has announced that he is seeking 2.5 to 3 billion euro savings in defence spending in the next 3 years of parliament. The new defence minister, Roberta Pinotti, has underlined the need for a strategic review that sets the requirements and decides the future of the italian armed forces, and both PM and defence minister have confirmed that a review of the F-35 program will be part of these operations. It is also true that there is strong opposition against the F-35 in many parties and groups, including Renzi’s own party. It is a part of Renzi's own Democratic Party which has called to halve the purchase of the F-35, down to 45. But to report of this call as what is going to actually happen to the program is a very wild call, at the moment. It is obvious that cuts to defence are going to happen and something will go for sure. The F-35 program will contribute to achieving these savings, but there is actually little that can actually be cut off the F-35 program in the next three years, and there are a lot of factors to consider in order to understand what is going on. 
F-35 development money is spent and gone. 800 million for the FACO have also already been spent. This money can’t be affected in any way. Italy has actually already slowed down the planned rhythm of its purchases, putting together a different plan already back in July 2013. So far, firm contracts have been signed only for 6 F-35A, spread 3 in LRIP 6 and 3 in LRIP 7.
Four more F-35A were planned to be ordered in LRIP 8, but the plan has already been reviewed downwards to just 2. The LRIP 9 was expected to include the first F-35B for the Navy and three more F-35A, but the plan has been reviewed and from four aircraft we are now down to 3 (1 F-35B, 2 F-35A).
The LRIP 10, in the latest projections, is described as including 4 aircraft (2 F-35A and 2 F-35B for the Navy), against 6 planned earlier (2 F-35A, 3 F-35B for the Navy and the first F-35A for the air force).
The first F-35B for the air force is now not due for delivery before 2021 (was to be 2018, originally). By the same date, the Navy will have received 10 F-35B.
The LRIP 11 appears to have been cut back from 6 to 5 jets: it was to include 2 F-35A, 2 F-35B navy, 2 F-35B air force while now it will include 3 F-35A and 2 F-35B for the Navy.
However, these changes are, as of now, a revised delivery schedule, not a net cut, as the totals remain, for delivery by 2027: 90 aircraft in total, made up of 60 F-35A, 15 F-35B for the Air Force and 15 F-35B for the Navy.
The LRIP 8 order is expected to be placed within the summer, while the LRIP 9 order would be placed next year. The lots 8, 9, 10 and 11 are those realistically most affected by the reduction in spending announced for the next three years. Delaying the purchase of several aircraft is obviously going to result in a short term saving; the question is whether this delay will be enough to achieve the current spending cut targets, or if the plan will be changed once more. 

The modified delivery schedule for Italy's F-35s, as has been coming together since summer 2013, as reported by Italy's Analisi Difesa (analisidifesa.it). Several aircraft are delayed from early LRIPs to later multi-year purchases. This will ensure savings in the next three years: will they be enough?
It is possible that a complete, temporary stop to orders could be chosen. The LRIPs allocations over the next three years could be reviewed downwards again. But it might also not happen. It is too early to say.
Cutting the order to 45 however, appears unlikely. First of all, the savings coming from such a decision would not be available in the short term, unless the program is frozen entirely and orders resume only a few years into the future. The scope for savings in the short term is very small, and changing the long term totals, considering that the purchase is spread over more than a decade, will only bring results in the long term. Renzi mostly cares about saving money now, as it needs funds to re-direct on his own spending priorities and, hopefully, on much needed tax cuts to help the economy. 
Stil, a complete freeze to the purchases is unlikely, i'd think, considering that Renzi openly said he remains committed to the program and to the collaboration with Washington: freezing the orders entirely wouldn’t go down very well with the partners. The chiefs of Air Force and Navy are also arguing with all their voice to ensure that they receive their F-35s relatively soon. The AMX and Tornado IDS are aging and the air force fears capability gaps opening as early as 2018, and while the navy's AV-8B+ Harriers are still relatively young, the Navy is just as eager to move onwards sticking to schedule. The Harrier fleet is tiny, and the airframes being worked have been pretty much always the same: they might be young in terms of years, but they have fatigue on their airframes.
The only way to achieve big savings would be to review the whole requirements in the White Paper, set even smaller aircraft and manpower targets for the Air Force, and likely remove from the ORBAT some squadrons of AMX and Tornado IDS, early and without replacement. Cutting orders of new aircraft which would not actually happen for years and keep spending big money on the aging platforms meant to be replaced by those would have little sense and very much limit the extent of the savings in the near future. Of course such decisions could well be made, but it is all to be seen.

Some press suggests that buying more Typhoons in place of part of the F-35s might be an option. Everything is possible in theory, of course, but it should be noted that this is definitely not what the defence chiefs want. Nor is it a realistic or a financially advantageous proposal.
Building more Typhoons is a wish of Finmeccanica, NOT of the air force. Finmeccanica would get greater gains from building more Typhoons rather than from building F-35, due to how the two programs work. However, the Air Force chief definitely does not wishes to take over more Typhoons: the plan is actually to soon withdraw from service up to 24 Tranche 1 aircraft (the indecision on numbers is due to a decision to be made on the fate of the 2-seat aircraft used for training) leaving 72 or 75 Typhoons out of the 96 being purchased. The Italian Air Force has been the first to start using Typhoon for QRA, but it has also been probably the less supportive partner, in recent years at least.

An (unlikely) order placed for the Tranche 3B Typhoons also risks having political implications in the international arena. The four Typhoon partners (UK, Germany, Spain and Italy) have all expressed their intention not to purchase the Tranche 3B: if one partner was to rethink on the issue, the Eurofighter consortium would probably try even harder to obtain penalty payments from the other countries: UK, Germany and Spain do not want to spend more money on more Typhoons, and most certainly don’t want to pay big penalties either. The matter could end up proving very complex. It is highly unlikely that the proposal could ever gain the willing support of the defence chiefs to start with: the Italian Air Force does not actually believe in the air to ground capabilities of the Typhoon. The service isn’t even quite exploiting the capabilities introduced by the P1E program, and considers the Typhoon a solution for the sole air dominance requirement and, possibly, for the launch of Storm Shadow cruise missiles in the future. And the Italian Typhoons are being delivered missing some capabilities altogether: even the Tranche 3As, differently from those built for the UK, do not have the full predisposition for conformal fuel tanks, nor the fuel dump system. All signals of the enduring unwillingness to invest on a truly multi-role Typhoon which is not seen as the solution for the needs of the service in terms of Strike and CAS.

Even if more Typhoons were forced down the throat of the air force, the total would not be 121, as the 20 or so Tranche 1 are due to be removed from service as they are going to age badly unless a lot of money is forked out to upgrade them to standards closer to those of the Tranche 2 and 3 examples. They would have, again, to force the air force to do something that is against all planning. Possible, but unlikely that the government will go this far.

Finally, halving the F-35 order would only mostly damage Italy itself, which will have spent a lot of money on the FACO, only to destroy its return with its own hands. Already, the massive reductions already experienced (131 to 90 for Italy, and 85 to just 37 for Netherlands) have reduced, to say the least, the cost-effectiveness of the assembly line, which now pins its hopes of becoming a source of financial and technical returns almost exclusively on being chosen as the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility for all F-35 users in Europe and in the Mediterranean area. Alenia's role as  second-source provider of wings for the F-35 has already been hurt by the cut
from 131 to 90 aircraft, which has resulted in Lochkeed Martin cutting back its minimum promise of work from 1215 to 835 wing sets, and the deal would only worsen with a new reduction. 
The biggest risk to Italy's industry and financial returns is that some other european F-35 partner could exploit the chance and make a big return in the race for the MRO site and get the contracts and decades of maintenance work, leaving Cameri as an expensive cathedral in the desert. That would be a true disaster. 

All these reasons make further big cuts to the F-35 order relatively unlikely. Possible, of course, but before announcing dramatic changes are coming to the program, i’d be very careful. The review of the program might actually deliver relatively mild changes to the plan.
The effects of the "review" of the F-35 program in Italy could go in many ways: it could cut the (arguably useless) 15 F-35B for the Air Force, hopefully growing the Navy's order from 15 to 20 or so, as for original plan. 

The purchase of F-35B for land use by the Air Force remains arguably the most controversial part of the italian F-35 program.

The 15 / 15 F-35B was a political deal forced on the Air Force and Navy when the 131 F-35 were cut to 90 (original 131 aircraft plan called for : 69 F-35A, 40 F-35B air force, 22 F-35B Navy). Experts generally agree that the F-35B for the air force, officially meant to cover the requirement to operate from “austere” air facilities in expeditionary operations, are a waste of money. There is also bitter consent on the hypothesis that what the Air Force really wants with its purchase of F-35B is to follow the RAF’s example and get rid of the uncomfortable presence of an independent deployable air power capability wearing Navy colours, by absorbing it.

The Navy has been severely hampered in its plans by the cut from 22 to just 15 F-35B, which aren’t quite sufficient to cover training, attrition, back up and frontline requirements, forcing a downsizing of the realistic, routine air group for the Cavour aircraft carrier. 22 jets were meant to support a training fleet of 3 based in the US, 5 aircraft unavailable / in maintenance and a forward available fleet routinely reaching the total of 14 jets.
A fleet of 15 jets, maintaining the training fleet of 3, would support at most 9 deployable aircraft.

The air force’s own F-35B will be based alongside the Navy’s ones on the navy base in Grottaglie, to concentrate the B logistics on the same base. However, the Navy has fought to the end (and successfully) to keep the two squadrons well and truly separated. The carrier deployments are meant to be covered by the sole Navy squadron. The result, as it is, is that the dangerous mess of a “fusion” Joint Force Harrier-style is avoided, but what’s left is two pitifully small groups, with the Air Force’s one lacking a convincing reason of existence. 

The FACO in Cameri has required a huge investment. Getting back the money will become next to impossible if wrong decisions are taken.

Most, if not all experts, agree that if the 90 F-35s are to be cut further, it is the 15 F-35B for the air force that should be at the top of the list of candidate victims.
A reduction from 90 to 80, with a 60 / 20 split between A and B, air force and Navy, would be seen with favour by many, including myself. A better option still would be to keep the order for 90 aircraft, but still reduce the number of Bs to no more than 22, all destined to the Navy. The air force would get 8 more F-35A instead of F-35Bs. The overall cost would shrink (the B is more expensive to both buy and operate / maintain) and, arguably, better overall capability would be delivered. 

The aircraft carrier Cavour, sailing for an exercise in 2012, carrying AV-8B+ Harrier of the "Wolves" group
We’ll see what comes out of the review and of the White Paper. Talking of halving the F-35 order, at this time at least, seems a very wild call. The reality is likely to be quite different. At least if defence chiefs get to say a word in the planning. 


  1. As usual v interesting. keep up the good work

  2. Interesting stuff, it's hardly surprising that the UK, Netherlands and Italy have all cut their F35 orders at a time of economic strife and faced with serious cost inflation and delays with the project. The American government and Lockheed-Martin should have also been more receptive to the fickle nature of European defence procurement from the start.

    I like how the Italian Navy's Cavour looks like a larger Invincible.

    1. Well, there are not many looks that a VSTOL carrier can have. Cavour comes with a lot of differences anyway: Aster 15 in sylver cells, the EMPAR radar with its mast, the 76mm CIWS guns (they hadn't been installed yet, when the photo i used here was taken, but now they are on), and two RoRo ramps allowing vehicles up to MBT size and weight to climb into the hangar when necessary.

    2. I didn't say it was surprising, just that i liked it!

      Sounds like a good overall slate of capabilities, better defensive arrangement than the Invincible's had after Sea Dart was removed, although in my opinion if the Royal Navy were to get some Sea Ceptor onto CVF then in addition to 3x Phalanx systems, 3x 30mm guns, decoy launchers and Artisan radar it would represent an excellent defensive package.

      Perhaps you can tell me why some foreign navies use larger 76mm systems for CIWS when the RN/USN and many others use 20-30mm types? Is it because a lot of frigates and destroyers come equipped with main guns in the 114-127mm range which have secondary defensive capabilities?

    3. The 76mm, particularly in the STRALES variant with its guided shells, represents a much more effective CIWS, which has the advantage of a lower cost per shot compared to missiles such as RAM, and a far greater range and lethality compared to Phalanx and Goalkeeper.
      It is a compromise between the advantages of missiles (range and lethality) and guns (cost, rate of fire, larger ready to fire ammunition reserve).

      The 76mm is good as a CIWS, backing up a larger medium caliber gun (like on italian FREMM GP frigates) and it is also a good weapon to arm minor warships, as it can cover both CIWS and medium gun roles. With the VULCANO 76mm guided rounds, a STRALES with multi-feeder can switch from defence of the platform to gunfire support, hitting targets 40 km away.

  3. Here's a radical thought. Italy cuts it's F-35 order by 45 and takes its 25 tranche 3B Typhoons plus 20 from either Germany or Spain.

    As the F-35As will cost at least €100 million each and the F-35Bs at least €120 million that's a minimum saving of €4.5 billion and probably a lot more in practice.

    Set against this, buying 45 Typhoons at €60 million each costs just €2.7 billion. That gives the Italian government at least €1.8 billion of their target savings of €3 billion.

    Also, it avoids the compensation claims from Airbus which according to some media reports are about €17 million per tranche 3B aircraft - so another potential saving of €425 million.

    As for the effect on allies - Germany or Span would presumably be grateful to have their 3B compensation problem largely removed. As for the UK we seem to be counting the Saudi order against our commitment and strangely enough our 160 + the Saudi 72 does come to our total prior commitment of 232! Don't know if that would stand up in a court of law but it does seem the Saudi deal was an inter-governmental arrangement rather than with the Eurofighter consortium.

    On a related note what's happened to the UK order for 14 F-35Bs trailed nearly a month ago? At £2.5 billion that's nearly £180 million each!!! Has that little crack they've found in the joints with the wings become a bit more serious than we've been led to believe?

    1. That is sci-fi stuff on the Typhoon.

      As for the F-35 order, it will be announced in due course. Just days ago there was a little-publicized contract signed with the US for the beginning of the activities at RAF Marham to prepare it as Main Operating Base for the F-35.

      The reported 2.5 billion cost is said to include logistics and infrastructure investment for Marham. Until we aren't told the details of the split in the figure, we have to take the word of the ministry which says that the aircraft are costing 97 million each.

      Norway has also paid a lot less than 100 million euro for its F-35A in the order they placed last year, so i'd be careful in throwing prices around.

    2. According to this 'Italian lawmakers are striving to invest in multirole, ground attack version of Eurofighter' as they want 'a push for European defense integration' while halving F-35 order. See http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140209/DEFREG01/302090010/Italian-Lawmakers-Consider-New-Cuts-JSF-Purchase.

      Meanwhile Airbus is looking for compensation of €655 million from Germany. See http://www.independent.ie/business/world/airbus-to-demand-655m-for-cancelled-jets-30041737.html

    3. Yes, there are parliamentary groups which argue against the F-35, that's nothing new. They won't necessarily get listened to. So far, governments and armed forces have successfully resisted those often demented calls.

      As for Airbus - Eurofighter calling for even more money, i'm aware of that too. Do i think they will obtain those compensations? No. They have already made the partner countries pissed off enough as it is. The Typhoon program has been a colossal drain of money, due to being a deal horribly one-sided in favor of industry, and has led to severe strain between governments and industry. Airbus has no interest in making Germany even angrier.

    4. If the Typhoon production line closes in 2018 Airbus have very little to lose as the chances are there will never be another manned European fighter aircraft, ever. You make some good points about the major increases in costs for this programme but what is true for Typhoon is doubly or even trebly true for the F-35.

      As for fiction, what about this story? Was it ever credible that the second most indebted government in Europe should be the largest buyer of the F-35?

      Whichever way you cut it the PM and Defence Minster are making it pretty clear that they aren't going to be buying 90 F-35s.

      Most western governments are at least as concerned about their industrial base as they are about military effectiveness when they buy major equipment. So what's in the best interests of industry? A few less F-35s (but still enough to keep the manufacturing plant open) and a few more Typhoons built at low production rates or just fewer F-35s? I think we know what industry would say.

      Then there's the Air Force. They have to find a replacement for 80 Tornados and 45 AMXs over the next decade. They thought they were going to get 75 F-35s and 21 tranche 3A Typhoons. But the politicians are going to have to bang home that there isn't anywhere near enough money for this. If they want to save a couple billion of Euros or so that either means 55 F-35s, 21 Typhoons and maybe carrying on with a few AMXs until they fall apart or it could mean 30 F-35s plus 66 Typhoons. As there's every reason to think that there might be even more defence cuts down the line which would make funding an AMX replacement even more unlikely the militarily most effective option is to have more Typhoons while the offers on the table.

      And let's face it the tranche 3 Typhoon is a pretty effective piece of equipment. With conformal fuel tanks it can carry up to 7 laser guided bombs (compared to 4 in the internal bays of the F-35 or 4 on a Tornado) or 21 Brimstone 2 missiles (compared to 8 SPEAR3 missiles on a F-35 or 12 Brimstones on a Tornado) or 2 Storm Shadow cruise missiles (the F-35 can't fit any while the Tornado also carries 2).

      So does an F-35 to Typhoon swap work for industry? Yes it does.

      Does it save what the politicians want? Yes it does.

      Is it good for European defence integration? Yes it is.

      Does it provide an effective military alternative? Yes it does.

    5. It just does not work that way. Also, please note that: italian Tranche 3A are not fitted with the complete CFT predisposition, nor the fuel dump system, differently from british ones.
      Laser guided bombs would be six, at most, four in more likely load configurations since otherwise the range is very reduced due to lack of external fuel tanks. The seventh bomb i don't know where you think would be carried. On the centerline under-fuselage point? Not cleared for bombs, only for a fuel tank or the targeting pod. Which laser guided bombs would need. So Typhoon is unlikely to go to war with six bombs and a pod, unless the target is close by. It'll be four plus two external tanks and the targeting pod.
      Brimstone is not integrated on Typhoon; it risks not to be before 2021; it is not a weapon italy employs or plans to buy. So it is not relevant.
      SPEAR 3 has also no meaning for Italy as it is a UK only weapon. Italy uses JDAM, american GBUs and SDB, which come integrated right away on the F-35. Not so on Typhoon.
      The Typhoon is probably going to be cleared for Storm Shadow carriage in two years or more, but even so, as of now, Italy has not paid for full integration. Only UK and Saudi Arabia have. It might as well pay, in good time, to integrate Storm Shadow on the F-35, which is something the UK also plans to do at some point.

      So, at best, Italy would have to fork out lots of money to integrate meaningful weapons and missing capabilities on the eventual additional Typhoons. The savings would be a tiny fraction of what you appear to think, and the air force will not have its requirements met all the same.

      Would it make industry happy? Yes, because the EFA program is a rip off which makes industry very happy. That's why defence ministries in the partner countries now hate it. Everything, including weapons integration, has to be split across all the industries involved, multiplying the cost and time it takes to do anything.

      Does it save what politicians want? Not really, no. It would still cost way too much.

      Is it good for european integration? Hell, no. It would actually cause trouble with other partners which DO NOT WANT to talk about more Typhoons and do not want Eurofighter to have any leverage to ask for penalties to those that do not want the Tranche 3B, not even in photo.

      Does it provide an effective military capability? Right now, no. Right now, its only air to ground capability eventually meaningful to Italy is dropping the GBU-49. Paveway IV is not in use in Italy, and all other AG weapons aren't integrated yet and won't be for years.
      It will provide good capability, including in air to ground modes, only years away and with hundreds of millions of further expenditure.

      Does it meet the requirements set by the air force? No.

    6. Sorry, you are quite right that the Typhoon centreline is not for any weapons but a targeting pod.

      Of course if Italy is to use the Typhoon in a ground attack role it will need the full CFT fit and that will then allow it to use six laser guided bombs as well as having four AMRAAM and two IRIS-T for self defence.

      At best in stealth mode the F-35 will only be able to carry four bombs and that assumes it takes no air-to-air missiles. Surely that would be a bit rash as the F-35 is only partially stealthy from the side and rear and its engine is still vulnerable to IR detection at shorter range. So it will probably carry just two bombs in the early stages of any conflict to allow for a couple of AMRAAM.

      The points I made about other weapons systems (Brimstone/SPEAR3) are probably a bit more academic as Italy hasn't shown any sign of adopting these more sophisticated weapons.

      As for Storm Shadow (which I believe Italy has 200 of) that will soon be available for use with the Typhoon. But I can't believe anybody will pay for it to be adapted for the F-35. It's way too big for the internal bays and if it's carried outside it would just turn the F-35 into a conventional 4th generation fighter but without the speed, agility or range of the Typhoon.

      I'm also not so sure that the Italian Air Force wouldn't go for the higher total numbers of aircraft that an F-35 for Typhoon swap would allow. The choice will surely come down to something like either 76 aircraft (55 F-35A and 21 tranche 3A Typhoons) or 96 (30 F-35A and 66 Typhoons). Faced with this choice I think the military would accept the latter option.

      The point you miss is that no matter how annoyed the partners are with Typhoon costs rising and delays and only incremental development the same is all also true of the F-35.

      It's price is way more than what governments have budgeted for or can afford, it's already at least five years late and it's still beset by software and development issues. If that's not bad enough just look at the very limited range of weapons it'll be able to use even with the block 3F software. Already there's a long list of future modifications.

      And that's the problem. You think Typhoon production is complex spread between four nations. Well Lockheed Martin has spread it's work in the US across 46 states. Why? Because it's efficient? No, because it creates huge pressure in Congress to keep the pork barrel rolling. Then there's all the foreign partners. 15% for BAe of everything and smaller amounts spread between nine other nations. It all creates a lot of political pressure to keep going regardless but it costs a fortune.

      No wonder six of the eight development partners have had to cut their orders already. And look at the two that haven't - Israel's are effectively being paid for by US military aid and then Turkey. How on earth are they affording 100 F-35As when the government's debt is almost as bad as Greece?

      Then there's the fictional USAF order for 1,763 planes. It's based on them replacing 220 F-15E, 1200 F-16 and 340 A-10. Well unfortunately the numbers have already dropped to 220 F-15E, 980 F-16 and 320 A-10 actually in service today. But of course we've still got budget cuts to come. The DoD is asking for the withdrawal of all the A-10s or as a back up 350 fewer F-16s. At best that leaves an F-35A order for 1,200 not 1,760. However, the fiction has to remain in place because to recognise reality would force the unit costs up and Congress has told Lockheed Martin it can't do that!

      My point is that if you think the issues with the Typhoon have been bad wait until the penny drops with the F-35! But maybe it already has and that's why Canada seems to have walked away and Denmark is holding a fighter competition.

      Finally, returning to where we started - Italy and http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140319/DEFREG01/303190039/Italian-Lawmakers-Back-Cuts-JSF-Purchase

    7. I told you what i had to. Clearly, you do not want to listen. Let's end it here, it is useless if you keep running the circle.

  4. Has Italy ever deployed its carriers in medium or major sized conflicts? Or its combat aircraft to any single led war?

    1. Italian Harriers from Garibaldi covered United Shield in Somalia in 1995; In 1997 they covered the evacuation of non combatants from Albania; in 1999 they fought in operation Allied Force; in 2001 the Harriers from Garibaldi flew alongside US Navy jets to hit Afghanistan, coming all the way from the Indian Ocean. The US ambassador gave the group the Air Medal in recognition of their efforts. In 2006 the Harriers flew over Lebanon for Operation LEONTE; in 2011 they hit targets in Libya.

      Italian aircraft, land and sea based, have taken part in most NATO operations. Italian combat jets are in Afghanistan right now.

  5. Dump the AMX and F35A fleets, join up with the Brazlians (as per AMX) to use Gripens in the expeditionary role and set up a joint RN/RM F35B training/reserve force.
    Different Anon....

  6. On a completely seperate note if you don't mind? News has it that the RAF tristars are out of service tomorrow and i was wondering exactly what is going to happen in the Falklands as as far as i can tell there is no plans to put voyager down there??

    1. They actually will. One Voyager is to be based in the Falklands. The hangar down there is too small, though, and for now they aren't bothering with expanding it, so it'll end up parked outside all the time.

  7. Go here for more information on F-35 cost.

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