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Assembly of the first F-35 Joint Strike fighter to be produced outside the U.S. has begun in Italy. Manufacturers delivered major structural components to the new final assembly and check-out (FACO) facility at Cameri Air Base, west of Milan, where the first F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant, designated AL-1, will be assembled for the Italian air force. The facility is operated by a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Alenia Aermacchi.
Assembly operations at the FACO started without fanfare out of sensitivity to strong political opposition in Italy over the cost of the F-35 procurement. A second-tier F-35 program partner, Italy plans to spend $15 billion on the jets beginning in 2015, Reuters reported. Last year, it reduced its original order for 131 jets to 90, including 60 F-35As for the air force and 30 short takeoff/vertical landing F-35Bs for the air force and navy.
The FACO is operated principally by Alenia. It has 22 buildings and more than one million square feet of covered space, with 11 final-assembly work stations. The companies plan to assemble all the F-35s for the Italian military and eventually those going to the Netherlands, should that country confirm its acquisition. The facility will also build the wings that Alenia will supply for all F-35 partner nations and other potential customers. Under current F-35 industrial participation agreements, Alenia will make no fewer than 835 wing sets, according to Lockheed Martin.
AL-1 assembly started upon the arrival of an F-35 rear fuselage built by BAE Systems in Samlesbury, UK; a forward fuselage and wing built by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas; and a center fuselage built by Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, Calif. The wing and center fuselage were shipped on a chartered C-5 transport to Milan Malpensa airport, then transported by truck to Cameri Air Base, arriving on July 12.
The companies plan to deliver AL-1 to the Italian air force in the fourth quarter of 2015. Component structures for AL-2 will begin arriving at Cameri in November. Plans call for delivering the second F-35 assembled by the FACO in the first quarter of 2016, Lockheed Martin said.
Meanwhile, at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth facility the Netherlands formally took delivery of the first of two F-35As that it ordered in 2009 and 2011 for the operational test (OT) phase. The second is still undergoing test and acceptance flights. But instead of joining the OT fleet, the two aircraft are going into storage at Eglin AFB, the Dutch defense ministry confirmed this week. The country is wavering again about buying F-35s as its F-16 replacement. Until a decision is reached, the two aircraft will be used “for technical ground tests,” the ministry added.