July 3 (Bloomberg) -- Italy is closing in on a deal with the U.S. to become the top maintenance provider for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter jets in Europe through a unit of state-controlled Finmeccanica SpA, Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said.
“We haven’t got the final word, but they are very open to it,” Pinotti said in an interview in Rome yesterday, referring to her discussions in Washington last week with U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Pinotti’s push for a role in maintenance emphasizes her commitment to the F-35 program, even as Italy considers cutting its order for the fighter jets. After more than a decade of economic stagnation, Italy is reassessing military spending and expects to have a strategy paper by the end of December. U.S. officials are understanding of Italy’s approach, Pinotti said.
“When you’re among allies and friends, you understand each other,” Pinotti said. “A slowdown doesn’t mean that we’re leaving the program. It just means that we’re slowing down now for financial reasons.”
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, will visit the plant in Cameri, Italy, on July 18, Pinotti said. The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program.
Italy and the U.K. are buying the F-35B short-takeoff and vertical-landing model that’s being developed for the U.S. Marine Corps -- the most complex model of the three aircraft under development. Italy announced in February 2012 that its initial planned purchase of 131 jets would be reduced to 90.
Speaking about tensions in the Mediterranean and in Ukraine, Pinotti said Italy doesn’t want to close the door to Russia.
“We think that with Russia we can have a firm position in situations where we don’t agree, but without definitively closing the door for situations of crisis like Syria where, in any event, a dialogue with Russia could be useful,” she said.
Ukraine and Russia agreed yesterday on the outlines for a sustainable truce in talks brokered by Germany and France. The bloodshed in eastern Ukraine has prompted the four countries to pledge to work for a comprehensive cease-fire.
Pinotti is carrying out reductions to military staff through 2024 that were planned by her predecessors, and said she will try to accelerate them if possible.
Italy will push for more integration during the EU presidency that started this week, especially in the aerospace sector, the minister said. At home, Pinotti said she hopes the country will strengthen its own position in the industry by gaining control of Italian space contractor Avio Space, which makes propulsion systems for satellite-launch vehicles.
While Italy should have a majority stake, the government is open to other partners, said Pinotti. She has discussed options with Finmeccanica Chief Executive Officer Mauro Moretti, whose company owns 14 percent of Avio Space. Private equity firm Cinven Ltd. has 81 percent.