The nuclear role of the F-35. An untold story

by Massimiliano Moretti (



Silence in the media

Some signals in scientific publications




For quite some time now, Italy’s involvement in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) enterprise has heated public discourse domestically. In a time of waging economic crisis, the majority of the Italian population, faced with cuts in public services demanded by a policy of austerity, fails to accept high military expenditures by its government for these aircrafts. However, although the planned purchase of 90 F-35s is often in the media’s spotlight, an important aspect of this issue is fairly ever addressed: the nuclear dimension.

An F-35 Lightning II is, in fact, a dual-capable aircraft (DCA), fit to carry and deliver a nuclear bomb. Whenever this characteristic is mentioned, it almost appears as pleonastic: most Italians aren’t aware of the fact that Italy is the European country which hosts the largest number of US B61s on its soil, approximately 60-70.

The silence on the nuclear capability of the aircraft reaches levels of absurdity, taking into account the amount of other minor technicalities of the JSF which are frequently described scrupulously. Furthermore, the ongoing process of modernization of the Italian Air Force has always been considered independently from its current nuclear weapons policy and vice versa. Maybe, by doing so, most commentators implicitly imply that these are on two separate and contradictory paths. An analysis of these trends will reveal, on the contrary, that they are two sides of the same coin.

Silence in media

The reduced format of a newspaper article might slightly justify, bearing in mind public opinion’s main interest for government spending, the absence of the nuclear problematic in the F-35 debate. This void becomes incredible when hour-long (or more) TV programs are dedicated to this topic. For example, two shows which aired recently are emblematic of this course. The most noteworthy is Gad Lerner’s satellite reportage on the “Billionaire war of the F-35s” of April 30th.

According to this journalist, the F-35s have created a divide in Italian society, symbolically represented by the latest celebrations of Italy’s Liberation Day, on April 24th. While the President, Giorgio Napolitano, warned not to indulge in anachronistic and demagogic anti-militaristic sentiments, thousands of activists of the Italian peace movement met in the Verona Arena for the cause of disarmament. In-between these two sides stands Prime Minister Renzi who has announced a revision of the F-35 acquisition project.

Lerner heard both bells. He interviewed advocates of the deal such as current and former Defense Ministers, Roberta Pinotti and Mario Mauro, and the Chief of the Defense Staff, Admiral Binelli Mantelli. Among the naysayers, he spoke to Maurizio Landini, General Secretary of the FIOM trade union, and Francesco Vignarca, author of the book “F-35. The craziest plane in the world” and coordinator of the Italian Disarmament Network.

Planes or trains?

Source: – The Italian Disarmament Network is addressing the issue of public versus military spending. Its main campaign is to show how Italy should spend its money instead of buying costly F-35s, for example, as the video shows, by modernizing the train system.

Needless to say, the former group believes the present-day agreement to be an industrially worthwhile investment and a military necessity while the latter an unheard of waste of money and also counterproductive for employment. What is truly surprising is the conversation between Lerner and a “Red Devil” pilot of the 6th Fighter Wing of the Ghedi Air Base in the North of Italy. This is one of the sites where nuclear bombs are stored under american custody. The pilot, after mentioning that the aging PA-200 Tornado IDS has been updated and can still carry out all its assigned missions, is asked what an enormous responsibility it must be to make the final decision, press the button and release the weapon, because of the traumatically devastating consequences of this action. Viewers at home have no idea that what is being discussed is the possible outbreak of a nuclear war.

The other show which should be mentioned is Michele Santoro’s national television inquiry “Now hope” of April 24th. He retransmitted ABC’s “Reach for the Sky” documentary of February 2013, when the state of the JSF development program was direr than today. In this way, Santoro tries to argue that if many American experts highlight the F-35’s weaknesses, then Italy, as other countries have done, should withdraw from the production and procurement of a malfunctioning aircraft. Three hours of broadcast, filled with anti-american, anti-NATO and anti-governmental declarations, were dedicated to the theme of the uselessness of the Armed Forces. Strangely enough, none of the speakers seized the opportunity in their pacifist philippic to condemn the future nuclear role of the F-35. However, Gino Strada, founder of the NGO “Emergency”, colorfully criticized Renzi for not asking Obama, after visiting Rome, to take back home with him America’s nuclear weapons.

B61 Silver Bullet Fusion Bomb

Some signals in scientific publications

The most up to date analysis on this subject is probably “The F-35 Program in an Italian Perspective” written by Francesco Tosato for the Ce.S.I (Center for International Studies) in March 2014. Aside from accurately reconstructing the complex history of this fifth generation multirole fighter and Italy’s participation since its beginning in 1998, Tosato examines its potentialities in thorough detail: the sensor fusion avionics elaborate the information gathered by the AN/APG-81 radar, the Electro Optical Targeting System (EOTS) and the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) into data which is projected on the helmet’s visor. For this and other reasons, the author considers the F-35 the most advanced fighter-bomber in its kind to the point of being incomparable to others. In consequence, he encourages the Italian government to wholeheartedly embrace its past decisions, without further reducing the number of aircrafts to acquire. Moreover, negotiations with the US should ensure significant economic drive through the transformation of the Final Assembly and Checkout Facility (FACO) of Cameri, where the wings of the F-35 will be produced, into the only Maintenance Repair Overhaul and Upgrade (MRO&U) Center for the European and Mediterranean region. Once again, no word is spent on the aircraft’s dual-capable nature.

Things change if one examines Anglo-Saxon literature. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists is certainly a leading scholar in the field. He wrote, along with Robert Norris in the 2010 nuclear notebook of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, that the US’s intention to modify the F-35 into a DCA was formulated in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). In later publications, he focused on the incompatibility between the B61 gravity bombs and the software of the JSF, emphasizing the consequences of a technological upgrade of the former. As part of their Life Extension Program (LEP), the four existing types of B61s will be shipped back to the US, disassembled and merged into a single new bomb, the B61-12. This will be redeployed in Europe around 2020 and carried by long and short-range bombers, thus blurring the line between strategic and tactical weapons. Improved with a guided-tail kit and delivered by a stealthy F-35, the B61-12 will be much more accurate than its predecessors.


Italy’s present-day attitude towards NATO’s nuclear weapons is highly contradictory, in the opinion of its only expert, Paolo Foradori. While public announcements make the Italian elite appear solidly in favor of global zero, privately many government officials prove to be reluctant to forgo nuclear weapons, which are long-lasting tools of Italy’s foreign policy. Italy is concerned that disarmament might damage the alliance’s cohesion and thereby defends the status quo. Foradori convincingly claims that, nowadays, tactical nuclear weapons in the Peninsula no longer serve their original political purposes.

Nevertheless, his conclusion that Italy should assertively champion and broker reciprocal arms reductions with Russia is arguable, especially in light of the possibility that this might increase Italy’s international status. For the time being, it seems unrealistic that an important stimulus in the direction of disarmament will come from Rome.

The perpetuation of its nuclear policy might aggravate the country’s international marginalization. However, Italy could probably more easily capitalize political gains, however small, on a policy of atlantic loyalty rather than by pursuing the goal of anti-nuclear prestige. This is exactly the same pro-american logic to which the F-35 acquisition responds to. Indeed, the declared modernization of the Italian Air Force and its projection towards the new security challenges of the 2020s represent a conservative choice, coherent with its post Cold War policy. Rome can only exercise its peacekeeping and crisis-management vocation through military cooperation with Washington, which desires Italian participation in the F-35 project. Renunciation is a price that Italy is not willing to pay. For Italy, participating is the construction of the aircraft which is intended to carry the B61s seems to be the best way to preserve the American nuclear guarantee.

Nonetheless it’s not impossible that the Renzi government might significantly reduce the number of JSFs to buy to 45. This is not due to his pacifist beliefs, but rather to his sensibility to public protests for electoral utility. As some of his party members are asking, he might in fact replace a portion of the sacrificed F35s with “cheaper” swing-role Eurofighters, which are not DCA.

In spite of this, a complete abandonment by Italy of either the F-35s or the B61s is almost unimaginable at the moment. The only thing that’s certain is that Italy’s standpoint on nuclear weapons and military spending in general will remain profoundly ambiguous and inevitably worsen the country’s already fragile international credibility.

F-35 completes air-start test at Edwards

Source: – The F35-A is a conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) aircraft




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