More Allies Are Cutting Orders for the Pentagon's Costly New Fighter Jet

After cutting its order 30 percent already, Italy will probably only end up with 45 of the boondoggle joint-strike fighter.

Image: Edwards Air Force Base

The United States isn’t the only country trying to cut down defense spending while still being on the hook for the expensive boondoggle F-35 fighter jet. Italy, which at one point committed $12 billion to the aircraft, is once again looking at cutting its order down to just 45 planes, from an original 90.

The defense committee for Italy’s center-left Democratic Party published a report on weapons systems that included a section on the F-35. The reported stated that the F-35 offered "no significant industrial gains" and that its cost—while only estimated—"cannot co-exist with the needs of our public finances," according to Reuters.

The Italian government under Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced a 10 billion euro (near $14 billion) income tax cut last week, and also said that the F-35 order would be revised as part of his government’s efforts to cut public spending. A source in the government told Defense News that the F-35 order could be cut in half from 90 stealth jets to 45. Two years prior, Italy cut its order of 131 F-35s down by 30 percent during the euro zone debt crisis.

The report highlighted reasons for cutting the F-35 order because the fighter program is characterized by too much variation in cost projections. Delays and cost overruns have raised the projected unit price from 75 million to 133 million USD. The most recent estimates from Lockheed Martin’s director of F-35 Korea Business Development, Randy Howard, said the planes will cost between $80-$85 million each.

The report also cites plans for a more integrated European defense system—strengthing defense's European identity. A fighter assembled in Italy, but made with closely-guarded America intellectual property doesn't look good compared to buying a Eurofighter—a version of which is being developed to take over the F-35's ground attack missions. Lawmaker Gian Piero Scanu, speaking on behalf of Renzi's Democratic Party told Bloomberg the F-35 program "fails to guarantee concessions for small- and medium-sized Italian businesses and can’t be counted on to create enough permanent jobs," and should be dropped in favor of the Eurofighter, which Italy already holds a 21 percent share in.

As for the wide range of possible costs per plane, Italy itself is at least partially responsible. Orders getting cut, by the Netherlands and now, it appears, Italy, are part of what complicates estimating how much the fighter will cost. With each Italian jet not ordered, the price of the remaining jets gets higher. With enough cancellations, the Economist warned that the F-35 could go into a death spiral, where rising costs cost cancellations which lead to higher costs, more cancellations and so on.

Italy’s PD paper said there is "a perceptible unease among the public when faced with major military spending during a period characterized by serious economic and financial difficulties," according to Reuters . It’s not only making the public uneasy, two-thirds of the Italian public doesn’t think the F-35 is necessary at all.

There still isn’t too much danger of an F-35 death spiral, though. The US Department of Defense is depending on the F-35 jack-of-all-trades (master of none) design to replace a fleet of ageing aircraft. Lockheed Martin is confident that whatever sales to NATO nations lack can be made up for in the South Pacific, by countries like Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan. Just today Reuters reported that South Korea was allotting $6.79 billion to buy 40 F-35s.

Even though the Pentagon made performance tests easier for the F-35, the fighter is $167 billion over budget, seven years behind schedule, and still plagued by problems that run the gamut from bad software to a bulkhead that breaks up during stress tests. It's hard to blame the Italians for wanting out, but as America's costliest weapon, the F-35 is firmly entrenched in the rarefied status of "too expensive not to buy." It's been a disaster so far, but with drone technology advancing, the Economist reassures that the F-35 is probably the last fighter the West will ever build.