The Italian air force's first two of six General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Predator B unmanned air vehicles will reach initial operational capability during July, ahead of a possible decision to make them available to support NATO's operation Unified Protector.
Preparations to field the medium-altitude, long-endurance aircraft have included participating in exercises above a test range in Sardinia, and over the Mediterranean sea, by using dedicated air corridors.
"The second pair will be delivered by the end of 2011, while the last two are to become operational by mid-2012," Col Fabio Giunchi, commander of the 32nd Wing at Amendola air base in south-east Italy, said.
© Troupe Azzurra/Italian air force
Its 28th Sqn already operates the MQ-1C Predator A+, employing the type over Iraq from January 2005 and in Afghanistan since April 2007, where more than 7,000 flight hours have been recorded.
Four upgraded Predators are in use, with a fifth being upgraded to the A+ standard and assessments being made to determine whether another can be returned to operational use after landing short of the runway during an approach to Herat air base in Afghanistan.
A replacement is also being acquired for one lost in an earlier accident.
Italy's larger Predator Bs are equipped with a Raytheon MTS-B electro-optical/infrared sensor and General Atomics Lynx II synthetic aperture radar.
The air force is waiting to receive a software update to support maritime surveillance tasks, Giunchi said, while it also has suggested that the UAV could be armed in the future to reduce the time between detecting and engaging a target.
In addition to the six air vehicles, Italy's Predator B acquisition also comprises three mission ground-control stations and related equipment, plus personnel training and support services.
Italian air force chief of staff Lt Gen Giuseppe Bernardis last month revealed possible plans to use the unmanned aircraft in support of the Libya campaign.