Uh Oh—A Crappy Italian Company Might Build The Netherlands’ New Stealth Fighters
Finmeccanica Group has a reputation for screwing up
The Dutch minister of defense recently attended talks in Rome to decide who would build nearly 40 F-35 stealth fighters for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Lockheed Martin in the U.S. designed the single-engine, radar-evading jet, but the company licenses some of the actual manufacturing to foreign factories.
The Netherlands is considering tapping Italian firm Alenia Aerospace to make most of the Dutch jets, which could form the backbone of the RNLAF for many decades.
The choice is a potentially risky one. Alenia Aerospace is part of the Finmeccanica Group alongside companies such as AnsaldoBreda and AugustaWestland. Finmeccanica has a reputation for high-profile failures. And if it screws up the Dutch F-35s, an entire European air arm could be in jeopardy.
When the Dutch national rail carrier Nationale Spoorwegen wanted trains to run on its new fast rail link to Antwerp and Brussels, it turned to AnsaldoBreda to produce the trains.
The first Frya trains arrived two years late and service began in 2009. It soon became apparent all was not well. Reports surfaced of serious manufacturing quality issues. Those few early trains suffered frequent outages, with as many as 80 percent of them being out of service at any given time.
Though AnsaldoBreda remained optimistic about its ability to resolve the issues, the company made little progress. The final straw was in the winter of 2012. Limited passenger service had just begun when a period of light frost accompanied by snow set in. Large chunks of ice formed underneath carriages as melt water from the roof refroze on the trains’ undersides.
These chunks tended to come off while the trains were moving—and bounce off the tracks back into the carriages. Most Dutch rolling stock is tough enough to handle this battering. Fyra was not. In January 2013 a train shed large pieces of underside plating. Authorities barred Frya from the Belgian-Dutch High Speed South track.
A legal battle ensued. The Dutch and Belgian national carriers wanted AnsaldoBreda to take back the trains and refund the cost. AnsaldoBreda continued to play down the problems, claiming it could quickly rectify them. In the end, AnsaldoBreda accepted the trains and refunded NS and the Belgians.
The Royal Netherlands Navy has long operated the British-made Westland Lynx helicopter from its frigates for submarine-hunting and search and rescue. Though the rotorcraft were still going strong in the 1990s, the navy decided to replace the Lynxs with strictly European-built helicopters.
NATO established the Helicopter Management and Acquisition group to oversee design and production of what would become the NH90 helicopter, pictured below. Finmeccanica’s Augusta—which eventually merged with Westland—was responsible for building the 12 Dutch navy copies.
There were long delays. Helicopters finally began to trickle into service in The Netherlands and other countries in 2007, years late.
In anticipation of the NH90’s arrival, the Dutch had already phased out the Lynx and were flying old Cougars as a stopgap. Crews should have welcomed the new NH90s. Instead, the aviators complained about physical discomfort due to high vibration and noise levels. An investigation led to the introduction of improved noise-cancelling headgear.
Larger troubles loomed just over the horizon as the first machines deployed on frigates during counter-piracy operations off the Somali coast. The copters suffered corrosion and wear far beyond what should occur in brand-new aircraft.
The Dutch national aviation research lab examined the NH90s and found construction and design errors. They ranged from a poorly designed tail structure to improperly applied or completely missing sealants. These errors reflect poorly on the quality-control procedures at Finmeccanica’s facilities.
Dutch officials characterized subsequent talks with AgustaWestland as productive. The burden of the NH90’s tasks fell—again—to the Dutch Cougar fleet, which the Ministry of Defense had wanted to downsize drastically. As such, there was no budget for the increased Cougar operations. The navy was losing its wings.
This June, the Dutch halted NH90 deliveries when they and the Italians failed to agree who should pay for fixing the flawed copters—and also cover the cost of extra Cougar flights.
Alenia Aerospace, the prospective fighter-builder, has had its own issues with manufacturing quality in recent projects. The company was to be the preferred supplier of horizontal tail surfaces for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. But once production got underway, flaws appeared in the Italian sub-assemblies. The aircraft’s skin de-laminated and came loose.
The problems resulted from Alenia’s improper use of shims and the over-tightening of bolts. Alenia’s errors led to delays in the production of new Dreamliners and forced Boeing to rebuild many of the aircraft it had already delivered. In the end, Alenia lost its status as the lead manufacturer of tailplanes.
Alenia plans to build the Dutch F-35s at a new factory at Cameri air base. Alenia will also assemble Italy’s F-35s—and hopes to attract maintenance contracts from stealth fighter-operators across Europe.
But it appears the Italian government is going to halve the number of F-35s it purchases, from 90 to just 45 or so. The cut could jeopardize the Cameri plant’s profitability—and puts the pressure on Rome to also do as much post-production maintenance work as possible at the facility.
The Dutch had hoped to exchange production for maintenance. In other words, The Netherlands would allow Italy to build the Dutch F-35s. Italy meanwhile would let the Dutch repair Italian F-35s at a facility in The Netherlands. But that fair exchange now appears increasingly unlikely.
To be fair, past problems with Finmeccanica Group projects don’t necessarily spell trouble for Alenia’s F-35 involvement. But they do seem to hint at a group-wide corporate culture that fails to promote quality. Alenia’s Dreamliner failure in particular is a worrying sign.
Maybe the Dutch should get their stealth fighters elsewhere.