The Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare) has flown its F-35A and F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter jets in “Beast Mode“ with internal and external weapons configuration for the first time. The aircraft are assigned to 32° Stormo (Wing) while the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) operates the flights. In “Beast Mode“, exploiting the internal weapon bays, the F-35 can carry up to 2x AIM-9X (pylons), 2x AIM-120 AMRAAM (internal bomb bay) and 4x GBU-31 2,000-lb (pylons) and 2x GBU-31 PGMs (internal bay). However, the loadout can be different, with lighter GBU-32s or GBU-12 500-lb LGB (Laser Guided Bombs). This maximum weapons configuration is possible when the stealth or low observability of the jet is not important for a particular combat mission.
The Italian Air Force is the only service operating both the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) and F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variants of F-35. Italy is one of the two Level II partners on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Programme, contributing $1bn. To deliver aircraft for Italy and the Netherlands, Lockheed Martin and Italian firm Alenia Aeronautica established an F-35 final assembly and checkout facility at Cameri Air Base, Italy. In 2016, the Italian Air Force’s first F-35s arrived at the first in-country base and the F-35A’s Initial Operational Capability was declared in 2018. As per the official US Government programme of record, Italy has plans to acquire a total of 90 F-35s. The new F-35 fleet would replace Italy’s 253 Panavia Tornados, AMX Fighter Bombers, and AV8B Harriers.
To date, Italian industry has secured $1.81 billion in F-35 production contracts. The value of these contracts is expected to exceed $9.9 billion over the life of the program. In addition, Engine manufacturing has resulted in $45 million dollars in contracts to Italian companies, with a total program value expected to exceed $4 billion. Lockheed Martin and its partners have awarded more than 100 contracts to dozens of Italian companies. On September 7, 2015, AL-1, the first-ever Italian-produced F-35, took the first international flight in F-35 program history. In February 2016, AL-1 made the program’s first transatlantic crossing. In December 2016, the Italian Air Force’s first F-35s arrived at the first in-country base, Amendola Air Base. In October 2017, the first Italian-produced F-35B model took to the skies and was delivered to the Italian Navy in January 2018.