Italian air force chief details Libyan operations

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Almost 100 days since the launch of coalition air operations over Libya, the Italian air force's chief of staff has for the first time detailed his service's involvement in the NATO campaign.

"We have been and are deploying almost the complete range of operational assets at our disposal," said Lt Gen Giuseppe Bernardis, who also outlined the service's progress with revolutionising its power projection capabilities.

Italy's involvement in Libya commenced with the use of Lockheed Martin C-130J tactical transports to perform non-combatant evacuation operations. It also committed Panavia Tornado ECR aircraft for the suppression of enemy air defences, plus Lockheed F-16s and later Eurofighters to help enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone.

"Since the launch of Operation Unified Protector, our Tornado IDS have conducted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions with the [Rafael] Reccelite pod, while from the end of April our strike force has been involved in air-to-ground operations with almost the complete inventory of weapon systems," Bernardis said.

This has included the use of Raytheon Paveway/Enhanced Paveway II and III laser- and GPS-guided bombs, others fitted with Boeing's Joint Direct Attack Munition guidance kit and, for the first time operationally, MBDA's Storm Shadow cruise missile.

"We are satisfied with the platform and weapon systems performances and crews' operational efficiency," Bernardis said.

"Our reduced fleet of new Eurofighter air superiority aircraft and upgraded Tornado and AMX strike aircraft is offering substantial enhancements in terms of capabilities and reliability compared to our previous large but less-sophisticated frontline component," he added. "The Libyan operations testify once again that investing in the capability to deploy a smaller but state-of-the-art fleet of first- and second-line platforms allows us to participate in international operations as a key player, within political indications."

Combat missions have been supported by the air force's Alenia Aeronautica G222VS signals intelligence aircraft, and also by its KC-130Js and one Boeing KC-767A tanker.

Two of Italy's delayed four KC-767As were placed into operational use in mid-May. "One is devoted to transport certification, while the other focuses on in-flight refuelling activities to speed up full operational capability," Bernardis said, with the latter currently limited to using its hose and drogue refuelling equipment only. The remaining pair should arrive late this year with operational software and hardware enhancements.

Italian aircraft have also for the first time made extensive use of the Link 16 datalink network during the campaign.

The air force could potentially allocate more of its assets to the mission should it continue for an extended period. Bernardis said that operators for its new General Atomics MQ-9 Predator B/Reaper unmanned air vehicles "are conducting training at a high pace from Amendola air base, in order to speed up initial operational capability and possibly put the aircraft at NATO disposal for Libyan operations".

Italy's first two of six Reapers were delivered in 2010, with two more to arrive late this year and the remainder to follow by mid-2012. Equipped with an electro-optical/infrared sensor and synthetic aperture payload, the aircraft can locate and designate targets for other aircraft, but will not carry weapons. Work to upgrade six A-model Predators also continues.

Looking beyond its current operational commitments, Bernardis said the air force will continue to enhance its existing fleet while also preparing to introduce new types.

"We want to consolidate the Eurofighter's air superiority capabilities before exploring its secondary air-to-ground role. In parallel, we are upgrading the Tornado IDS/ECR fleet and plan to introduce new equipment, such as the [Rafael] Litening III targeting pod and [Boeing] small diameter bomb." Such measures will fill the gap until Lockheed's F-35 Lightning II enters use, he said.

The air force has identified a requirement for both the conventional take-off and landing F-35A to replace its AMXs and Tornados and the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B to provide an expeditionary capability.

Previous plans had called for the STOVL aircraft to enter use first, but Bernardis said: "With the F-35B development accumulated delays, a switch to an initial F-35A CTOL version entry into service is being considered." A final decision is expected this year. Its first aircraft will be used to support training in the US, with Italy expecting to declare initial operational capability from 2018.

In a nearer-term procurement, the air force is to replace its Agusta-Sikorsky HH-3F combat search-and-rescue and Agusta-Bell AB212 SAR helicopters, respectively with up to 12 AgustaWestland AW101s and 10 AW139s. "The latter will be delivered within two years as gap-fillers until the more capable AW149 will be ready, while the first two AW101s will be handed over in 2014," Bernardis said.

Further orders for the CSAR-roled AW101 will follow within annual procurement budgets, depending on available funds.