Italy’s Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta made the announcement in an interview with private broadcaster La 7 on Friday in which he ruled out new contracts with Washington for the purchase of Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets. He also said the order for 60 F-35A and 30 F-35B jets – as per an agreement signed in 2012 – would be placed under review.
“We won’t buy any more F-35s,” Trenta said in the interview, adding that the money –estimated to be €14 billion altogether – could be better spent to boost welfare and help the sluggish economy.
“We are assessing what to do regarding the contracts already in place,” the Italian defense minister from the Eurosceptic Five Star Movement said, noting that while her party has always been a vocal critic of the program, scrapping the bulk deal could “cost us more than maintaining it.”
The fact that the cancellation of the order and the resulting “strong financial penalties” might cost the Italian budget a hefty sum is one of the main reservations that is holding the government back, Trenta argued.
Back in 2012, Italy already downsized its initial order for 135 jets to 90 as it was battling with a sovereign debt crisis.
The minister also cited benefits in terms of technology and research in Italy that were linked to the purchase deal, as well as the negative impacts the contract could have on jobs and Italian workers in the production.
Italy became the only country with an F-35B assembly line outside the US in May 2017. However, the jets had to be delivered to the US Navy base in Maryland for certification and crew training.
The 5-Star Movement, a fierce critic of NATO member Italy’s order for the F-35 deal, formed a populist coalition government last month with the far-right League party.
“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,” Trenta said at the time.
The Friday announcement comes as US President Donald Trump has written to several NATO allies and asked them to increase their share of the costs for defense of the alliance, warning that Washington is losing patience.
In his letters sent last month, the US president highlighted long-standing complaints that other countries are not contributing enough to NATO and that the US is bearing too much of the alliance’s load.
NATO members pledged to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on national defense in 2014, and Trump has repeatedly criticized them for not fulfilling that commitment.
NATO officials, due to meet in a summit in Brussels later this month, are concerned that divisions over trade tariffs, as well as the US withdrawal from the Paris global climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, could undermine alliance unity.