Italy's Getting Two Aircraft Carriers. Too Bad It Won't Have Enough Stealth Fighters To Fly From Them
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She squeezed through the narrow channel at the Maritime Military Arsenal in Taranto, Italy, all 27,000 tons of her. It was May 6, and the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour was leaving the semi-enclosed basin at the arsenal following 10 months of work costing $76 million.
That work involved, among other efforts, adding a layer of heat-resisting material to Cavour’s 801-foot-long flight deck so the vessel, the flagship of the Italian fleet, safely can operate Lockheed Martin LMT F-35B stealth jump jets, whose downward-blasting lift fans produce enough heat to melt the decks of unprepared ships.
Cavour is scheduled to sail to the United States this summer in order to mate up with the navy’s first two F-35Bs, which at present are flying from the U.S. Marine Corps base in Beaufort, South Carolina.
She’s sailing into controversy. For the Italian navy and air force are at odds over the F-35B.
The Italian navy and air force each expect eventually to acquire 15 F-35Bs. In navy service the F-35s are replacing 15 Boeing BA AV-8Bs. The Italian air force also is acquiring 60 conventional-takeoff F-35As that, along with the B-models, will replace aging Tornado fighter-bombers.
The air force doesn’t plan to fly its F-35Bs from ships. Instead, the jump-jets will give the air arm the option of operating stealth fighters from short and rough airfields on land.
But it’s fair to say that the air force is getting its 15 F-35Bs at the navy’s expense. The fleet required 22 F-35Bs; it’s getting just over half that number.
At a cost of around $100 million per copy, the F-35 has proved too expensive for many militaries to acquire in the numbers they originally planned. Italy in 2012 cut its own procurement of the F-35 from 121 planes to just 90.
The navy should have gotten all the F-35Bs it needed, even if that came at the air force’s expense, retired admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli, the former chief of the defense staff, wrote in an open letter to the current defense minister, Lorenzo Guerini, in February. F-35Bs should belong “exclusively to the navy,” Mantelli wrote.
Diverting jump jets to the air force “severely penalizes” the navy, the former admiral added.
Besides, the F-35B’s vertical-landing capability is wasted on land, Mantelli continued. “The use of the F-35 [jump jet] from advanced ground bases in the operating theater is extremely unlikely as it requires particularly prepared runways and highly sophisticated support to avoid damaging the turbines (the fan) in landing and take-off.”
Cavour in theory can support as many as 16 F-35Bs at a time, but there will be only 15 in the fleet under current planning. And of those 15, as few as eight might be available for operations after taking into the demands of training and maintenance.
In other words, Italy has more aircraft carrier than it has aircraft for the carrier to carry. And the problem is about to get a lot worse, as the fleet is currently fitting out a new amphibious assault ship, the 33,000-ton Trieste, which also can embark F-35Bs.
Once Trieste joins the fleet in 2022, Italy will have the ability to embark twice as many F-35Bs as the navy actually possesses.
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