Italian F-35 facility rolls out its first STOVL stealth fighter

Same place that Blighty's dented jets will get their T-Cut

The UK's sole F-35B in flight. Crown copyright
A British F-35B in flight. Crown copyright

Italy has assembled the first F-35B outside the US, at the same factory where British jets will eventually be overhauled.

The final assembly and check out (FACO) factory in Cameri, about 99km (60 miles) northeast of Turin, delivered its first F-35B on Friday (5 May), according to a Lockheed Martin statement.

Although the factory has already built seven F-35As, this is the first short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variant to be assembled there. The F-35B in question, known as BL-1, will be flown to the US for "electromagnetic environmental effects certification".

That Italy has control of the European FACO is an interesting point in intellectual properties terms. All models of the F-35 are marketed as stealth aircraft, meaning the FACO needs to be capable of assessing each airframe's stealth characteristics and rectifying any problems – meaning that the US has transferred a significant amount of what one might describe as the F-35's USP to the southern European country.

"Italy is not only a valued F-35 program partner that has achieved many F-35 program 'firsts', but is also a critical NATO air component force, providing advanced air power for the alliance for the coming decades," said US Admiral Mathias Winter, of the F-35 Joint Project Office. The JPO is the US military body that makes all decisions about F-35 contracts and production.

Although BAE Systems will soon have an F-35 airframe maintenance facility in the UK, RAF Marham in Norfolk, it appears that this will not have the same level of overhaul capability that the Italians will. Compare a main car dealership to your local garage. The UK also owns the European F-35 avionics overhaul facility, which is at Sealand in North Wales.

Lockheed Martin is the designer of the F-35. The company, along with the US government, exercises extremely close control over F-35s worldwide regardless of which country has "bought" them – to the point where the US JPO dictates where each customer nation's air force may have its aircraft serviced and by whom.

This includes the UK: our F-35s will be sent to Cameri for heavy overhauls when they reach that point in their service lives. In addition, the Lockheed-designated engine overhaul plant for Europe is in Turkey, which caused some serious raising of eyebrows when that country's leadership claimed a military coup was taking place last year and subsequently purged hundreds of thousands of "disloyal" people from all areas of public life. So far, the Turkish F135 engine overhaul plant remains in place without an official nearby alternative.

Two other F-35 FACO factories exist outside Italy: one in Fort Worth, Texas, and one in Japan. The Cameri factory will eventually build a total of 109 F-35As and Bs. It is operated by Leonardo, the company formerly known as Finmeccanica, which also has a second-source contract with Lockheed to build F-35 wings. ®

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