Italy is well on the way to assimilating its fleet of Eurofighter Typhoons and training aircrews, with the combat aircraft playing a prominent role in policing Italian and Balkan airspace.
All national and international operations involving the Italian air force are handled by its air force operational command, or COFA. Its commander, Lt Gen Leandro De Vincenti, also heads the NATO Combined Air Operations Centre 5 (CAOC 5), which is responsible for air policing over Albania, Croatia, Hungary, Italy and Slovenia. The two organisations are co-located at Poggio Renatico, near Ferrara, in northern Italy.
© Italian air force
Italian air force T2000 equipped with IRIS-T and Sidewinder missiles
"By means of national surveillance and reporting chains, NATO CAOC 5 scrambles fighter sections to identify suspicious military, commercial or general aviation aircraft and if necessary escort them to land or out of controlled airspace," says De Vincenti.
Surveillance of Italian airspace plus identification and control services are provided by a network of radar sites and reporting centres, including jointly managed civilian/military air traffic control sites under the auspices of a national air operation centre.
If an aircraft flying in Italian airspace is considered a threat and therefore categorised as "renegade", an intercept mission is originated by NATO CAOC 5 and placed under the Italian air force's operational control, while the national government authority is also informed, says De Vincenti.
In 2008, Italian air defence assets conducted 12 scrambles against mainly commercial and general aviation aircraft that had behaved suspiciously, either by not responding to radio calls, deviating from authorised flight plans or entering Italian airspace without permission.
© Italian air force
NATO evaluators control the aircraft arming phases
COFA has also, since July 2001, managed air defence cover for high-profile events. "To safeguard last July's G8 Summit in L'Aquila, a multi-layer air defence assets barrier was established, including a locally deployed air operating centre and reporting unit, with Eurofighter
F2000 Typhoons and Lockheed Martin F-16s
conducting air patrols and quick reaction alert missions," says Brig Gen Paolo Mazzi, head of COFA's operations division.
"To cope with slow-moving targets at low altitude, the Italian air force also employed Alenia Aermacchi MB-339CD armed advanced trainers and Agusta/Sikorsky HH-3F combat SAR helicopters in a dedicated 'slow mover interceptor' configuration with light guns and messaging equipment, accumulating more than 490 flying hours in 185 sorties," Mazzi says.
© Italian air force
Eurofighter simulator in action
It is under the aegis of the Air Component Commander (CC-Air) at Izmir in Turkey that CAOC 5 plans, directs and co-ordinates air surveillance and air policing operations over Albania, Croatia, Hungary, Italy and Slovenia, in addition to managing allied air units employed in the Balkans area.
The Italian air force provides NATO QRA(I) assets for air policing operations over Albania and Slovenia, together with Greek and Hungarian air force aircraft.
While Slovenia owns a national radar and command and control chain under CAOC 5 control, Albanian air surveillance and policing is provided by Italian control and reporting post and air defence units under CAOC 5 control, assisted by Greek air force F-16s under the control of CAOC 6 at Larissa in Greece.
A planned NATO reorganisation will bring the closure of operation centres in Portugal, Spain and Turkey in March 2010. Thereafter, CAOC 5 will provide air surveillance and policing over the central-western section of NATO's southern flank, while CAOC 6 will manage the eastern flank.
To cope with the new air policing tasks, the Italian air force is to upgrade its air surveillance and controlling chain, including the installation of Elsag Datamat multi-datalink processors at its air defence sites to enhance interoperability between ground, air and naval platforms. It will also replace its ground-based air surveillance radar component with Selex RAT-31DL 3D radars by 2014.
Already selected by other NATO countries, these new sensors will free current radar operating frequencies for WiMax applications.
"In the future, the Italian air force is due to receive MEADS [medium-extended air defence system] missile batteries, which will provide anti-ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction defence capability," says De Vincenti.
He add: "A complex C4I capability is to be tested in November at national level in a simulated computer-assisted exercise, for a potential evolution to form the basis for multinational joint force air component command applications".
In 2001, the Italian defence ministry signed a leasing contract with the US government and Lockheed to acquire 45,000 flying hours from F-16s over a seven-year period (2003-10).
This was a means to fill the gap between Typhoon service entry and the retirement of its Lockheed F-104 Starfighter interceptors after more than 40 years' service. It would also adapt to the expiry of a 10-year Panavia Tornado ADV leasing contract with the UK Royal Air Force.
Under the "Peace Caesar" programme of 2003-4, the Italian air force received 34 secondhand F-16A/Bs in air defence fighter configuration. It assigned them to three squadrons: the 10th and 18th squadrons of the Trapani-Birgi, Sicily-based 37th Wing and the 23rd squadron of the 5th Wing, based at Cervia on the northern Adriatic coast.
Italy's F-16s began providing quick reaction alert activities in January 2004 and were the only fighters assigned to both national air defence regions until being joined by Grosseto - between Pisa and Rome - and Gioia del Colle, south-east Italy-based Typhoons in December 2005 and January 2009, respectively.
To better co-ordinate the Typhoon phase-in period, "the Italian ministry of defence requested and obtained an extension to the leasing contract until mid-2012 without extra costs, thanks to the shorter-than-expected support by the US contractors team", says De Vincenti.
The extension applies to only one of the two Trapani-Birgi based squadrons and covers 2,000 additional flying hours for 14 aircraft. The current fleet of 28 aircraft has now accumulated more than 39,000h, with an average availability rate of 70-80% and frequent levels of 80-90%.
Since January 2004, the F-16 fleet has conducted more than 150 operational intercept missions, the longest being flown this year by Cervia-based pilots.
"Last September two F-16s were scrambled to identify and escort an aircraft out of the Bologna city area. After radio contact, the fighters accompanied the Algerian air force [Lockheed] C-130 until it left the southern NATO flight region on its way to Algeria," says Col Paolo Cianfanelli, commander of the 5th Wing.
Depending on the mission, the F-16 standard intercept configuration includes one Raytheon AIM-9L Improved and one AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM air-to-air missile, in addition to the internal 20mm gun and two external underwing fuel tanks.
Maintenance of the F-16 fleet, including the engines (but excluding the avionics), is managed by aircraft maintenance group GEA (Gruppo Efficienza Aeromobili) and a team of roughly 60 Lockheed and half a dozen Pratt & Whitney technicians.
"Intermediate-level maintenance on the engine is provided by the 5th Wing GEA team of only 13 persons [including US contractors], while airframe inspections, including the 300h activities, are conducted by the 37th wing maintenance group under US supervision," says Lt Col Stefano Bulgarelli, head of the 5th Wing GEA. "A well-established partnership allows us to obtain periods of 100% availability."
The Cervia-based 5th Wing is expected to conclude F-16 operations early next summer, leaving the Trapani-based wing as the only Fighting Falcon-equipped unit until mid-2012.
"The future of the Italian air force's air policing operations is represented by the Typhoon, assigned to the two aircraft main operating bases: Grosseto and Gioia del Colle," says Col Achille Cazzaniga, commander of the 4th Wing.
"To efficiently cover the entire Italian airspace and the added Balkan area, the aircraft will also use forward operating bases, including Trapani and Cervia," Cazzaniga says. The 4th Wing started to receive Tranche 1 Typhoons in March 2004 and began QRA in December 2005.
Destined to be the only unit responsible for air defence in northern/central Italy and Slovenian, the 4th Wing has accumulated more than 1,500h on Tranche 2 aircraft since first delivery in November 2008, Cazzaniga adds.
At full operation, the GEA maintenance group will manage around 30 single- and twin-seat aircraft to sustain the flying activities of the two resident units.
"The 20th Sqn (Operational Conversion Unit) has converted more than 60 pilots since 2004, while its instructors also support all operational activities," Cazzaniga says.
Because of initial training and infrastructure delays, Italian air force pilots began ground school and conversion on a Typhoon simulator at Alenia Aeronautica's simulation centre in Turin, followed in 2006 by training on enhanced-aircrew cockpit procedure trainer devices specifically developed by Alenia to meet the requirements of the two air bases.
A cockpit trainer/interactive pilot station - enhanced device became available in January 2007 at Selex Galileo's Ronchi dei Legionari facilities. Finmeccanica's Selex Sensors and Airborne Systems unit plays an important role in the Typhoon programme, providing specific subsystems of the ASTA simulation devices and a majority of the on-board avionics, alongside Selex Communications and Elettronica.
"The first full-flight simulator was activated at the new dedicated training centre at Gioia del Colle in March, and will be followed by a second one from the end of this year," says Cristiano Montrucchio, Alenia Aeronautica's head of avionics system and simulation.
Another two full flight simulators, together with a cockpit trainer/interactive pilot station - enhanced device, will be installed at the training centre at Grosseto, with the first being available from autumn 2010.
"The modular Typhoon training syllabus allows experienced and fresh pilots to reach a limited combat capability, which will be followed by a three- to 10-month period [depending on experience] to become full combat ready," says operational conversion unit commander, Maj Emanuele Spigolon, who adds that the training phase already includes progressively more complex scenarios, including "two versus many" scenarios.
Previously equipped with Tornado ADV and IDS fighters, the Gioia del Colle-based 36th Wing received its first Typhoon in October 2007, and began to share QRA missions with Trapani-based F-16s in January. "The Wing launched air-policing operations over Albania last July, reaching full operational status this autumn, six months ahead of a planned milestone," says Col Gianpaolo Marchetto.
"The Typhoon-equipped 12th squadron will share its air defence activities with a second resident unit, still to be identified, which is to stand up from the beginning of summer 2010 on the base, to become operational within 2011.
"The latter unit will have initially interim operational facilities, to allow the construction of a common core of advanced command and control and operational facilities for both squadrons, making Gioia del Colle the first air base to introduce the new concept, already approved for the future Lockheed Martin F-35A/B Lighting II units locations."
Together with the depot maintenance unit at Cameri air base, which is responsible for Typhoon and Tornado depot maintenance and logistics support for the Italian air force, Gioia del Colle's 936th GEA unit shares the aircraft's 400h inspection activities. Avio, part of the Eurojet consortium, conducts repair and overhaul of the EJ200 engines through its Brindisi centre, in addition to providing on-base support.
"With the dismissal of the BOSS [Batch One Support System] programme in December 2006, which saw Alenia Aeronautica delivering a complete maintenance and support package to the Italian air force to smooth weapon system entry into service.
"Today Italy's Typhoon industrial team, led by Alenia, provides avionics maintenance and support with a first dedicated facility on Grosseto air base, together with general systems, aircraft ground equipment, consumable and standard items support in the frame of the Typhoon integrated supply chain management system, complemented by engineering and logistics support services provided by the Eurofighter consortium", says Carlo Mancusi, Alenia's Eurofighter programme director.
"Alenia Aeronautica has already delivered to the Italian air force all 27 Tranche 1 and 13 Tranche 2 aircraft, with two more due by year-end. In the meantime, we continue to upgrade older Tranche 1 single and twin-seat Typhoons, an activity that will be completed by 2011."
The Tranche 3A contract, signed last July, will provide 21 additional aircraft to the Italian air force by 2015, beyond the 29 Tranche 1 and 46 Tranche 2 aircraft already contracted for and to be delivered by 2013.
The air force surpassed 10,000 flying hours on the Typhoon in July, with more than 1,800h racked up on its Tranche 2 examples, with the latter being the highest number among Typhoon operators.
With the adoption of latest software releases for Tranche 1 aircraft and Tranche 2 Block 8 airframes, sensor fusion has been enhanced and new aircraft systems and capabilities added, such as the Pirate infrared search and track sensor, although it is pending qualification, and a full defensive aids subsystem.
Italian air force flying units are satisfied with progress made in implementing aircraft capabilities. An in-flight refuelling qualification test with an ad-hoc equipped Lockheed C-130J transport has been completed, while similar activities with a Boeing KC-767A tanker to be carried out by mid-2010.
In June 2009, the 4th Wing put its Typhoon and operational organisation though the Allied force evaluation qualification to conduct air defence operations within the NATO Response Force.
"During the three-day evaluation, which also covered logistics and force protection, we simulated operation from a forward operating base in the framework of international missions," says Cazzaniga.
"A mixed force of Block 5/8 aircraft performed a wide range of air defence missions together or against Italian and international assets, also including airborne early warning and control and low-level and slow-moving targets emulators.
"Standard load configuration included the external centreline fuel tanks with air-to-air refuelling capability, and a mix of AIM-9L Improved and AIM-120 missiles, in addition to the internal 27mm gun and MIDS Link 16 standard fit."
Cazzaniga adds that the Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile is already in the inventory and is being used in training, but full realisation of the advanced weapon performances will come with the new helmet-mounted display, of which a pilot fit measurement campaign is ongoing, to be delivered in 2010. During the evaluation, the aircraft mix demonstrated a combat availability well above NATO's requirements and was able to fulfil over 97% of tasked sorties, says Cazzaniga.
"The Italian air force will contribute to NATO Response Force 15, which will be on stand-by from the second half of 2010," says De Vincenti.
"To amalgamate the provided air units for NRF 15, CC-Air Izmir is organising the 'Brilliant Ardent' exercise in Germany next April. The Italian air force intends to participate with Typhoons and an expeditionary logistics component. For NRF 16 [which will be in stand-by throughout 2011], CAOC 5 will contribute to CC-Air Izmir."