Italy special: Italian defence programmes hit by budget squeeze

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Although the recently presented 2011 defence budget has revealed a planned €266 million ($370 million) increase in spending, the total €3.45 billion figure requested by the Italian defence ministry and ministry of economical development could be at risk, according to defence analysts.

The defence ministry's request, which has yet to be approved by parliament, contains an overall 18.2% cut in its operational, maintenance and training budgets. The move will further reduce the efficiency of the Italian armed forces, and for the first time is expected to hit out-of-area operations, while personnel costs are on the rise.

With a large amount of defence investment devoted to aerospace programmes, the Italian air force is struggling to maintain its operational capabilities in the face of equipment replacement and upgrade demands, starting with the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35.

The service's expeditionary capabilities are being maintained for now with fleet upgrades for the Panavia Tornado and Alenia/Embraer AMX. "The Italian air force shifted from an all conventional to a mixed short take-off and vertical landing/conventional version fleet including up to 40 F-35Bs and 69 F-35As, in order to offer the required flexibility for out-of-area operations," says Gen Roberto Nordio, the head of the office responsible for procurement issues.

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 © Italian air force
Italy intends to withdraw its Eurofighter Tranche 3B commitment, capping its fleet at 96 aircraft

These aircraft, together with the Italian navy's STOVL F-35Bs, will be assembled at a future final assembly and check-out line at the air force's Cameri facility near Milan Malpensa airport. Construction activities have recently begun under an initial €230 million contract with Alenia Aeronautica. According to the 2011 defence budget request, the new plant will require an overall investment of €800 million in order to be ready for assembly activities in 2012 and to deliver its first aircraft in 2014.

The Italian final assembly line is also planned to build F-35s for the Netherlands and possibly also Norway. "The aim is to become a long-term maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade facility for European operators of the JSF," Nordio says.

The Italian air force plans to assign its first F-35Bs to units at Amendola air base in the south-east of the country, with two more, yet-to-be selected main operating bases to field the CTOL F-35A. According to a detailed introduction plan, which is already involved in training and infrastructure preparation activities, "the first STOVL aircraft will be delivered to the Italian air force in mid-2015, with initial and full operational capabilities to be achieved respectively in 2017 and 2019. For the conventional version aircraft the plan is scaled back by two years," he says.

The government has lobbied Lockheed to expand the role of Italian industry in the F-35 programme beyond 38 current companies, including Alenia Aeronautica, which will participate as a second-source wing provider and also run the Cameri final assembly line. This will employ roughly 1,800 personnel and deliver a maximum of 24 aicraft per year and six wings a month.

Italian undersecretary of defence Guido Crosetto says up 17 additional Italian firms could secure a role on the JSF as a result of Rome's efforts. Other companies already involved include Avio, Mecaer and Secondo Mona.

The air force's other main procurement programme regards the Eurofighter F-2000 air defence fighter. This is being fielded at two main operating bases, Grosseto and Gioia del Colle, to cover Italian airspace.

With the Tranche 3A contract signed in July 2009, Italy will receive a total of 96 aircraft versus its planned total of 121 Eurofighters, with its defence ministry having announced its intention to cancel its Tranche 3B commitment. "Deliveries continue with Tranche 2 aircraft, and pilots are being equipped with a helmet-mounted targeting system," says Nordio. "We are pleased with the aircraft availability rate thanks to the logistics support programme managed by Alenia Aeronautica."

A completed AMX fighter/bomber upgrade programme has delivered enhanced efficiency and combat capabilities, with the type currently deployed in Afghanistan. It performs an important intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role, thanks to its Rafael Reccelite pod and real-time datalink subsystem, used to transfer images.

MID-LIFE UPGRADE

The Tornado IDS/ECR fleet is meanwhile the subject of a mid-life update (MLU) programme. Nordio says the first of 15 "Ret 7", or MLU full-basic retrofitted aircraft, is currently involved in acceptance trials. The aircraft features a new cockpit, main computers, navigation, communication and identification equipment and weapon systems. The first batch will be followed a future contract for 25 fully upgraded Tornados.

Nordio says the air force is fully satisfied with the aicraft's new defensive aids sub-system (DASS), developed by Elettronica in partnership with its own personnel. But he notes: "we are still evaluating the benefits versus the timeframe postponement requested by the system series development and production, and available funding."

In addition to adding Boeing/Oto Melara small-diameter bombs and a Link 16 datalink, the proposed work will also add the ATK/MBDA Italy AARGM AGM-88E anti-radiation missile to the ECR version aircraft.

As one of the pioneers in using unmanned air vehicles in Europe, the air force is involved in an enhancement capability programme for its General Atomics Predator fleet, already employed in Iraq and today in Afghanistan. This will modify six Predator As, mainly with new sensors and an upgraded engine, but also replace lost examples and provide six larger Predator Bs. Two of the latter type are already employed by the service's UAV unit at Amendola air base, with its personnel having been in training since last August.

"We expect to reach initial operational capability with the Predator B within the first half of 2011," Nordio says. "We are also working to remotely control out-of-area UAVs from Italy, and expect this capability within 2010."

Elsewhere in the ISR sector, a deal for a new Joint Airborne Multi-sensor Multi-mission System platform to enhance the capability offered by the air force's lone Alenia G222VS has been postponed due to budget limitations.

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 The Italian air force expects to reach initial operational capability with the Predator B within the first half of 2011

But after years of postponement, the service has finally launched the replacement of its rotary-wing fleet with the procurement of AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters for combat search and rescue and special forces operations support. The type will replace its current Agusta-Bell AB212 ICOs and Sikorsky HH-3Fs.

"The general directorate for air armaments has awarded AgustaWestland a contract for the first two of 12 AW101 CSAR aircraft, plus training and initial logistics support," Nordio says. Deliveries will be made between 2014 and 2017, with the deal including an option for another three. They will be equipped with a self-protection suite derived from the Tornado DASS development. The remaining aircraft will be ordered on a yearly basis, he adds.

Another deal, to equip the air force with 10 AW139s as an interim solution for domestic SAR requirements, has gained parliamentary clearance, but awaits defence ministry approval. The aircraft should be delivered in 2011-12, with the air force's long-term vision being for a capability using the developmental AW149.

Alenia Aermacchi received a contract in November 2009 for the first six of 15 T-346A lead-in fighter/advanced trainers, plus an initial batch of ground training equipment, logistics support and training. "Deliveries will begin in 2012 to Lecce flying school, further enforcing this institution and pilot training on the international arena," Nordio says.

The air force will also manage the future interim fleet of four ATR-72MP maritime patrol aircraft. These will replace Italy's Breguet Atlantique 1s, which are jointly crewed with navy personnel. A contract amendment should be signed before the end of 2011 to add an electronic warfare suite and anti-submarine warfare equipment, and the aircraft should be delivered from late 2012.

Italy's ability to conduct expeditionary operations relies on strong combat and operational support, and Nordio hails the high availability rates delivered by the air force's Lockheed C-130J and Alenia Aeronautica C-27J transports. A new military transport hub for out-of-area operations is to be established at their home base in Pisa.

And after years of delay, the air force during October began acceptance trials in Wichita, Kansas, with its first Boeing KC-767A tanker. Nordio says this will be delivered at the end of 2010, or early 2011. "The second will follow at a one-month interval, depending on the first aircraft's trials execution, while the other two will come at a later stage," he reveals. Five of the air force's C-130Js can also perform refuelling operations if required.

In order to provide a better response to conventional and asymmetric threats and personnel protection in overseas missions, the service has developed an in-house design for a roll-on/roll-off counter-improvised explosive device and electronic monitoring suite. This will be installed on the C-27J. "Development and trials could lead to a deployment in Afghanistan next spring," Nordio says.

The air force will also this year sign a contact with Elettronica to develop a customised directional infrared countermeasures system for transport aircraft and later helicopters, under a co-development with Israel's Elop.