Italy's defense ministry has decided to buy 40 fewer F-35s, according to reports Wednesday, part of overall defense spending reductions that were probably inevitable given Europe's economic nightmare. Italy will also cut some 30,000 troops and 10,000 defense civilians, according to Bloomberg.
The mind begins to race ahead: The Italians are scaling back their buy. The Brits are delaying another firm commitment. The Aussies are grumbling, grumbling grumbling. The F-35's own hometown Pentagon is pushing 179 airplanes outside the future years defense plan. Can this Fellowship hold? Quantity is the key to maintaining any semblance of "affordability" for these jets -- which already cost $23,557 per hour to fly, according to GAO -- and each partner that scales back threatens the unit cost that much more.
If nothing else changes, the answer is probably yes, the Fellowship can hold. If Congress saves the Pentagon from "sequestration" and DoD can carry on unmolested for the next few years, it's hard to imagine it imposing another big delay in the program -- so long as it improves. If Europe avoids an economic apocalypse in which, say, Greece leaves the Euro zone or more pauper nations require costly bailouts, the Continent's members of Club F-35 probably also can keep their overall commitments to the jet.
But our "interesting times" so far in the 21st Century never seem to repay optimism. There's as much reason to expect Congress would come up with some kind of super-double-sequestration as a way to prod itself to do away with regular sequestration, and then fail to avoid both of them and zero out the entire budget. And another round of Euro-dithering amidst the next country's debt crisis could break up the euro zone, taking Europe out of the defense game for 20 years. The fate of the F-35 program could be the least of our worries.
One thing Italy's decision might definitely do in the near-term is put additional pressure on the F-35B. Italy is the only other customer for the B besides the U.S. Marine Corps, and although Secretary Panetta just gave the airplane his blessing, it's viewed as the weakest pup of this litter. The Italian navy, like the U.S. Marine Corps, is absolutely depending on the B to keep its ability to fly fast jets at sea. When one, or both, decides to give up that aspiration, that's how we'll know things have gotten really, really serious.