Italy has adjusted its role in the Lockheed Martin-led partnership for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, dropping an initial purchase order but signing two key industrial deals.

Rome says it will not participate in the initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) phase of the F-35 programme, declining a chance for its pilots to be involved in defining tactics and procedures ahead of first deliveries to the Italian air force.

Accordingly, Italy has dropped plans to buy its first of two early examples of the F-35 in the third lot of the programme's low-rate initial production phase. The purchase of a planned second F-35 in LRIP lot 4 is also now unlikely.

Italy's decision reduces Lockheed's total LRIP lot 3 order to 16 confirmed aircraft, including 14 from the US government and two for the UK. The Netherlands is also considering buying two F-35s to participate in the IOT&E phase, with a recommendation on whether to acquire the aircraft or buy Saab's rival Gripen NG expected before year-end.

Lockheed Martin F-35
 © Lockheed Martin

Italy's defence ministry initially planned to buy 131 F-35s, including 109 conventional take-off and landing F-35As for the air force and 22 short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs for its navy. The aircraft would replace the AMX, Boeing AV-8B Harrier and part of the air force's Panavia Tornado fleets. However, this plan is believed to have recently been reduced to about 100 fighters, with a final order plan likely to be finalised in 2010.

Italy's decision to drop out of the IOT&E phase comes as its government makes heavy cuts to this year's defence budget. However, the nation has moved forward on investing in a final assembly and checkout line for the JSF at Cameri airbase, which is aimed at producing and supporting all Italian and Dutch F-35s worth about $8.6 billion.

Alenia Aeronautica also on 6 October confirmed its role as a second source to build 1,200 wings for the F-35 in Italy.

But Italian industry remains concerned about its overall role in the JSF programme. Italy's Institute of International Affairs has released a report that concludes there are "still some critical issues relating to transferring technologies but also the need for European countries to increase their co-operation to increase their bargaining power".

Source: Flight International