AMENDOLA AIR BASE, Italy — Air force chiefs from around the world who flew into southern Italy this week to discuss getting the best out of their F-35s gathered in front of journalists to watch a mechanic working on an Italian jet.
The scene at Amendola air base would have been unremarkable except the mechanic was from the Dutch air force, and was part of a bid to show how F-35 operators can work on each other’s aircraft to save cash, increase efficiencies and show Moscow how united they are.
“There might be times when a U.S. F-35 has to divert to another air force’s base, or plans to, and we are trying to make them interoperable so any F-35 nation can work on any F-35 no matter where it comes from – and not just refuel it but re-arm it as well,” said Gen. James Hecker, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, who was at the meeting.
The conference at Amendola, which coincided with Falcon Strike 2022, an exercise involving Italian, Dutch and American F-35s, brought together representatives from the surging number of F-35 customers including Finland, Poland, Belgium, Israel, the U.S., Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, the U.K. and Canada.
Italian air force chief Gen. Luca Goretti said shared maintenance was high on the agenda, claiming, “The standardization process in Europe is intense.”
Goretti said that if he wanted to deploy Italian F-35s to the Netherlands, he would currently need to send a back-up team of 100.
“But if we are doing cross servicing I can deploy crew chiefs,” he said, adding, “That means my deployment cell is 30 to 50 guys. The rest is managed by (the Dutch). And that is saving money.”
That means harmonizing maintenance procedures, a task that European users of the Tornado and Eurofighter have previously managed.
Italy is also hoping that pooling maintenance will encourage users to send jets to its fledgeling F-35 maintenance hub at Cameri air base in northern Italy, which has hitherto focused on assembling F-35s for European customers.
Italy has rolled 16 F-35A’s and five B’s off the line so far, while the Dutch – after getting their first nine jets assembled in the United States – have had the remainder of its 32 deliveries to date assembled at Cameri, and will receive another 14 from the line by 2024.
Dutch air force chief Lt. Gen. Dennis Luyt said he would be using Cameri for maintenance services in the future after rating the assembly work at the base.
“We always said if our Italian friends can build a Ferrari they can probably build an F-35 and we have been really impressed by Cameri,” he said. “We are very happy with the aircraft we are receiving. It is important we have places in Europe where we can not only build but also maintain them,” he added.
Goretti said sharing maintenance was also a signal of unity in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“We are proving to our friends in Moscow that we are all united and doing the same job. This is a very strong message,” he said.
That message has been also boosted by the sheer number of F-35s now being purchased by NATO members, with the war in Ukraine pushing sales.
“The Ukraine war has driven home the value of air supremacy, and more nations see that,” said Luyt.
Hecker said that by 2034 he expected to see just over 600 F-35s flying in Europe, up from around 140 ordered today.
“If we get to 600 F-35s in Europe, that’s pretty powerful and sends out a strong message to any opponent of NATO,” he said.
The U.S. general added, “When you look at Ukraine, neither country has been able to get air superiority and we see what the result is – several hundreds of thousands of casualties in less than a year. If you compare that to the number of casualties we had in twenty years in Afghanistan it just blows it out of the water.”
He said, “So it really shows the importance of air superiority. The F-35 is going to help us gain and maintain that air superiority should we have to go to war with somebody else.”
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.