* Cabinet to review defence spending cuts Tuesday -govt
* Italian defense minister to outline cuts to lawmakers
* Italy to cut order to 100 from 131 -newspaper
By Steve Scherer
ROME, Feb 10 Italy seems certain to scale
back its major investment in Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35
Joint Strike Fighter, heightening uncertainty over the troubled
stealth jet's future.
Defence Minister Giampaolo Di Paola has said repeatedly
since January that the country's originally planned order of the
131 supersonic warplanes by 2018 was being "reviewed" because
military spending cuts were necessary as part of Prime Minister
Mario Monti's austerity plan to shore up public accounts.
General Claudio Debertolis, secretary general of the Defence
Ministry and the country's armaments chief, confirmed to
lawmakers on Tuesday that cuts were expected.
"There will be a revision of this Joint Strike Fighter
programme to align it with disposable resources," he said.
Italy will ask for about 30 fewer planes, Corriere della
Sera daily reported on Friday, without citing its source.
Panorama magazine gave the same number on Jan. 18.
Government sources and lawmakers told Reuters that it was
premature to say how many of the F-35 fighters Italy will order
because of uncertainty over the version of the aircraft designed
for short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL).
This version is supposed to replace ageing Harrier jets on
Italy's new hi-tech Cavour aircraft carrier.
On Tuesday Monti's Cabinet will examine the Defence
Ministry's new spending plan that includes reducing F-35 outlays
and personnel cuts, according to a government source. The
minister will then detail the package to parliament on
The Pentagon's F-35 program office declined comment on
Italy's plans, saying all of the partner countries would meet in
Australia in March to discuss their production plans.
Uncertainty over the Pentagon's most expensive current arms
programme is growing as participating countries cut or postpone
orders, and flight testing continues.
Washington is expected to announce on Monday that it will
postpone production of 179 planes over the next five years,
bringing the total that would have been ordered between 2013 and
2017 down to 244 from 423.
In January the Pentagon announced $487 billion in defence
cuts over the next decade.
"It's reasonable to do what the American government is
doing, reduce the number of orders and spread them out over a
longer time frame," said Federica Mogherini, secretary of the
Italian Chamber of Deputies' defense committee and a member of
the centre-left Democratic Party, the second-biggest bloc
supporting Monti's technocrat government in parliament.
"It's not yet necessary to establish total number of planes
we will order because costs are evolving, and all the technical
problems have yet to be resolved," she told Reuters.
Some of the most significant technical problems concern the
short take-off model, which has had engine trouble, and needed
an early redesign due to excess weight. Recently, there were
concerns about metal fatigue in a bulkhead, overheating of
parts, and excess vibration in doors for an air input port.
Only the United States and Italy have so far said they plan
to buy the STOVL version of the aircraft.
Australia has also said it is rethinking its plan to buy 12
of the radar-evading jets, and Turkey has put off buying two of
them. Britain said earlier this month that it won't make a firm
commitment on the number of planes until 2015. The other
partners in joint construction of the plane are Denmark, Norway,
the Netherlands, and Canada.
Italy is the third investor in the programme after the
United States and Britain. Italy is in the process of ordering
its first three planes for $240 million, Debertolis said on
Centre-left lawmakers called for defence cuts as Monti's
"Save Italy" austerity measures kicked in this year, hitting
Italians with smaller pensions and higher fuel costs, property
and sales taxes aimed at eliminating the budget deficit by 2013.
Two newspapers aligned with the centre-left Democratic Party
criticized spending on the F-35 jet programme in a series of
articles during the first half of January.
State-owned Finmeccanica is one of the
subcontractors on the project. Finmeccanica's Alenia unit will
assemble the planes purchased by Italy, the Netherlands and
"Even if the order we make is much lower than 131 we started
with, Italy's work on the aircraft is still guaranteed,"
Debertolis told lawmakers. "We could have a significant decrease
in orders and still keep Italy's industrial role intact."