ROME, March 14 (Reuters) - Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini on Thursday defended the country’s plans to buy 90 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets, following recent media reports suggesting that the order would be slashed back.
“Any effort to slow or review (purchases of the F-35) I would consider harmful” for the country, Salvini told reporters in Rome.
The comments by Salvini, who leads the ruling far-right League party, follow unsourced reports at the weekend in the Italian media saying Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta was planning to slash the F-35 orders by two-thirds.
Trenta is from the populist 5-Star Movement, the League’s governing partner. 5-Star has always been critical of the F-35 purchases, saying the money could be better spent on welfare or to boost the economy, now in its third recession in a decade.
Last July, Trenta announced she was reviewing the F-35 orders, while noting that the penalties for scrapping the orders might be more costly than maintaining them.
After Salvini’s comments, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who is not a member of either party, met with Trenta to discuss the F-35.
Conte’s office issued a statement afterward saying defence spending would be reviewed in coming months to ensure that all planned projects respected the country’s strategy and its role in the NATO alliance.
Disagreements over the F-35 could further build tensions within the populist government. A deadlock over whether to dig a new rail tunnel under the Alps between Italy and France nearly led to a government crisis only a week ago.
This week Italy’s air force commander, General Alberto Rosso, defended the fighter during testimony in parliament, saying he was concerned that the uncertainty regarding the F-35 would undermine the quality of the fleet.
Italy is already using 11 of the aircraft and has trained 25 pilots, Rosso said, adding that Italy owed 389 million euros to Lockheed that had not yet been paid.
Italy whittled back its F-35 order to 90 jets in 2012, from 131.
The plane is made by Lockheed Martin Corp, with companies including Northrop Grumman Corp, United Technologies Corp’s Pratt & Whitney and BAE Systems Plc also involved.
In Italy, defence group Leonardo’s Alenia manages a $1 billion-plus government-owned final assembly and checkout facility in Cameri. (Reporting by Steve Scherer and Giuseppe Fonte Editing by Frances Kerry)