Controversial F-35 Program Achieves Production Milestone: First Italian Fighter Rolls Off the Line

The trillion-dollar stealth fighter program takes a step closer to full production with the first European rollout

The controversial and oft-delayed F-35 stealth fighter program took a step closer to full production as the first Italian F-35A Lightning II rolled out of the Cameri Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility. This is the first F-35A assembled internationally and the first of eight aircraft currently being assembled. The aircraft, designated as AL-1, will now proceed to additional check-out activities before its anticipated first flight later this year.

The 5th Generation stealth fighter is the result of a  partnership between the Italian Ministry of Defense, industry partner Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi, and Lockheed Martin. The Italian FACO is owned by the Italian Ministry of Defense and is operated by Alenia Aermacchi in conjunction with Lockheed Martin with a current workforce of more than 750 skilled personnel engaged in F-35 aircraft and wing production. The Cameri operation contains 22 buildings with over 1 million square feet of production space.

“The Cameri FACO is truly a national crown jewel, currently assembling the first eight Italian F-35As and producing wings for all F-35As fleet-wide,” said Lorraine Martin, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and F-35 program manager. “Additionally, as the European F-35 airframe Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul and Upgrade center, it will generate thousands of long-term, high-tech jobs for the Italian people for decades. Lockheed Martin is proud of its relationship with Italy and values the highly-skilled Alenia Aermacchi workforce building this incredible jet.”

Italian-built jets for Europe

The FACO will build all Italian F-35A and F-35B aircraft, is programmed to build F-35As for the Royal Netherlands Air Force and retains the capacity to deliver to other European partners in the future. In December 2014, it was selected by the U.S. Department of Defense as the F-35 Lightning II Heavy Airframe Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul and Upgrade facility for the European region. The 101-acre facility includes 22 buildings and more than one million square feet of covered work space, housing 11 assembly stations, and five maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade bays. The first full F-35A wing section was recently completed and will soon be shipped to Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, F-35 production line for final assembly.

Italy will receive 90 F-35 aircraft, a combination of F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variants and F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing jets. With this mix of aircraft, Italian forces will be able to land almost anywhere, including bases, damaged airstrips, remote locations and air-capable ships. The Cameri final assembly and checkout facility is owned by the Italian Ministry of Defense and is operated by Alenia Aermacchi in conjunction with Lockheed Martin. The current workforce is over 750 skilled personnel.

Three variants for land and sea

Three  variants of the F-35 will replace the A-10 and F-16 for the U.S. Air Force, the F/A-18 for the U.S. Navy, the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier for the U.S. Marine Corps, and a variety of fighters for at least 11 other countries. The Italian F-35As and Bs replace the legacy Panavia Tornado, AMX and AV-8B aircraft. More than 130 F-35s have been built and delivered fleet-wide and they have flown more than 28,500 flight hours.


Production volumes are small by manufacturing standards, meaning lots of hand work in final assembly. Automation is further upstream, in machining and composite lay-up.

The F-35 program is the most expensive weapons procurement in history, with some estimates topping 1.5 trillion dollars over the life of the program. Significant criticism about the high cost of the program are combined with doubt from some industry and military experts about the viability of the multi-role “one-size-fits-all” mission capability intended for the aircraft.

The F-35B variant will have vertical landing capability


Will it work?

Conventional wisdom among pilots and many aircraft designers is that no single aircraft can expertly perform such a wide variety of missions. The A-10, for example, is a slow fling, armor-plated tank buster, while the F/A-18 is a supersonic fighter. The AV-8B is a vertical takeoff close support airplane used by the US Marines. If the F-35 proves capable of replacing these very different aircraft, it will be the first aircraft to achieve this feat. The last time a similar military aircraft program was attempted was the General Dynamics F-111 in the 1960’s. That program produced successful airplanes, but not in the multiple roles for which it was intended and was fraught with cost overruns. It was, for the time, also a highly complex aircraft, a criticism currently leveled against the F-35, with many pundits claiming that the jet will be a maintenance-heavy “hangar queen”.

A recent story by Tony Capaccio for Bloomberg described a report for the US Congress that was less than enthusiastic about the project. Test director Michael Gilmore is quoted: “What is clear is that [the F-35] will finish with deficiencies remaining that will affect operational units. Capaccio continued, “Gilmore warned that unless ‘immediate action is taken to remedy these deficiencies,’ the aircraft’s ability to ‘be effective in combat is at substantial risk.’”

Expensive, but in production

Cost estimates vary, from a high of $114 million per unit for initial production, to $85 million at production maturity. With low production volumes (90 aircraft for Italy) the billion dollar investment in the Cameri operation has been questioned by the Italian press, although the extent of possible MRO activity with full European integration of the F-35 is not certain. If Italy can win the heavy maintenance/overhaul role, additional airframe buys may not be needed for break-even. A more likely scenario is a split in the maintenance business between the other European partners (UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and possibly Turkey).

On the program side, however, Lockheed Martin delivered 36 aircraft last year, meeting their production target, and the naval F35C variant completed the first phase of its sea trials on schedule. According to the company, the program supports 125,000 jobs spread among 1400 suppliers in 46 states, with 8 international partners.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.