In early February, an Italian air force test pilot made history by becoming the first aviator to cross the Atlantic at the controls of a Lockheed Martin F-35. Identified by the service as Maj Gianmarco, he delivered the service’s first of the fifth-generation type – built at a national final assembly and checkout facility inside Cameri air base – to NAS Patuxent River in Maryland. The Lightning II is now undergoing electromagnetic testing, after which it will support Italian pilot training at Luke AFB in Arizona.
Given the significance of the deployment, little attention was paid to the pair of two-seat Eurofighters that accompanied aircraft AL-1 on its momentous journey, along with a Boeing KC-767A tanker. But one of these was in fact also on its way to making a highly significant debut in the USA.
A little more than two weeks after touching down at Pease AFB in New Hampshire, one of the Typhoons – tail number MM55130 – joined up with a further seven of the type, which had followed it across the Atlantic to participate in a US-hosted exercise for the first time. Representing the toughest test so far for the Italian air force’s main air-defence asset, the Red Flag 16-2 maneouvres were conducted from the US Air Force’s Nellis AFB in Nevada between 29 February and 11 March.
Sized at 190 personnel, the Italian commitment was intended to operate as a small wing, with a squadron commander overseeing 24 deployed pilots. It was also comprised of a maintenance group, along with other functions such as administration and flight safety personnel. “We wanted to make sure that we are an autonomous wing,” detachment commander Col Marco Bertoli says of the structure.
To draw the most benefit from the deployment, pilots were selected from across the nation’s Typhoon force. This includes its 36th Wing, based at Gioia del Colle, the 4th Wing at Grosetto – from where the aircraft started their journey – and the 37th Wing at Trapani.
“This is an opportunity for great training, and to be ready for future operations,” Bertoli said during a media day on 8 March. “That’s why we’re here: to train our pilots.
“This is one of the best combat training environments we can find in the world,” he adds.
For around 40% of the Italian pilots, this was their first opportunity to take part in a major exercise since transitioning to the Typhoon’s cockpit and achieving combat-ready status. This process involved undergoing initial fighter fundamentals training at Lecce air base, receiving instruction at the operational conversion unit level at Grosetto, and then spending at least nine months with a frontline unit. Others involved in Red Flag 16-2 were more experienced, for example having conducted NATO air policing duties over the Baltic states for an extended period last year.
The aircraft sent to the exercise included five Tranche 1 production examples, plus three in the Eurofighter’s latest P1EB software standard. This introduces a full “swing-role” mission capability, enabling a pilot to conduct air-to-air to air-to-surface tasks during a single sortie.
To illustrate this advance, the P1EB-configured aircraft were each flown carrying a pair of inert GBU-16 Paveway II 226kg (500lb) laser-guided bombs and a Rafael Litening III targeting pod. Its pilots were also using the Typhoon’s advanced helmet-mounted display, which allows for weapon targeting using the Diehl Defence IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile, and also projects the position of all other Link 16 datalink-equipped aircraft on their visor. “It gives you a really great enhancement, as far as weaponeering and spatial awareness of the battlefield area,” Bertoli says.
While they were involved first and foremost as air superiority assets, the Typhoons’ participation also involved releasing air-to-surface stores against targets in the Nevada Test and Training Range.
Described by the USAF as “the largest contiguous air and ground space available for peacetime military operations in the free world”, this contains around 1,200 targets and covers 12,000nm2: 40% of which has airspace closed to overflight by civilian traffic.
During the exercise, the Italian contingent provided two waves of six aircraft each per day, or of six and four, depending on the air tasking order for the activity – during which up to 80 aircraft would be airborne at the same time.
Also acting on the “Blue Air” side, the USAF’s contribution involved multiple combat types, including Boeing F-15Es, Lockheed F-16s and two of the service’s three strategic bomber types: the Boeing B-1B and B-52. Supporting assets included Boeing E-3G airborne warning and control system aircraft, KC-135 tankers and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reapers, which were piloted remotely from nearby Creech AFB. Joining Italy as an international participant was the Turkish air force, which deployed six F-16s and two KC-135Rs.
Opposing, “Red Air” types included F-15s and F-16s flown by Nellis-based aggressor squadrons, plus large detachments of Northrop T-38C Talon trainers and Douglas A-4 Skyhawks; the latter provided by private company Draken International. These were supported by ground-based systems.
“From a Red force perspective, they have an integrated air defence system which is progressively degraded, depending on the results of the attack package, so it’s a very realistic scenario,” Bertoli says.
“What we want to do is integrate a large force all together and be able to operate – because if we can do this in training right now, then when we go to future operations we are going to have 60% of the work already done. Understanding each other and learning from each other is the key point of this exercise,” he adds.
“If we want to make sure that our crews are ready to perform in any combat scenario, we need to be sure that they are able to perform the same mission during day and night.
“It’s pretty demanding for the pilots,” Bertoli says of participation in a major exercise. Mission planning was conducted the day before a sortie, and then all pilots attended a mass brief on the morning of the event. “Everything is over pretty much 12h later,” he notes.
After landing, Typhoon pilots would assess mission tapes and conduct validation of any air-to-air and air-to-ground shots made, before attending a mass debrief, led by the USAF’s Red Flag staff.
“Then the flight leader and all the pilots get together to do the final debrief with the mission commander, in which we highlight all the lessons identified, the TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] we used,” Bertoli says. “That is the really great learning experience: getting together the pilots after the mission and seeing what was good, what was wrong, what sort of integration we missed.”
“From an air-to-air point of view the aircraft is performing very well, and the pilots are performing well also. We are learning a lot, and seeing a great integration,” he says, adding: “we demonstrated the same level of proficiency in the Baltics.”
Deploying the Typhoons to the USA required the support of two of the service’s KC-767s, which accompanied formations of four and three aircraft, respectively. Also making the trip were two Lockheed C-130Js configured for an oceanic search and rescue role, and another carrying technicians and spare parts to support any possible diversion. After leaving Grosetto, the aircraft were flown to Lajes Field in the Azores, and then on to Pease AFB, before completing their journey to Nellis.
Bertoli notes that despite the distance and complexity involved, the first Eurofighter touched down in Nevada at the pre-determined arrival time on 22 February.
“They came here with no problem. It means that the Eurofighter has a high degree of efficiency,” he says.
During the type’s most recent period of Baltic Air Policing duty for NATO, Italian aircraft performed more than 40 “Alpha” scrambles during an eight-month period, while operating from Šiauliai air base in Lithuania. “We had 100% mission success,” says Bertoli, who was also involved in the mission. “Every time the scramble went off, two Eurofighters took off within the time the CAOC [combined air operations centre] gave us. This means the aircraft is a really great air-to-air platform.”
“We were the first NATO nation to do the full round of interim air policing,” he notes. “Every day we protect the airspace of Slovenia and Albania, we were in Iceland in 2013 and have done the Baltics.” The service is planning to do another round of Baltic Air Policing duty, and to make another deployment for NATO to Iceland.
Experience gained during that operation, and also through a previous NATO detachment to provide air defence cover from Iceland informed the volume of spare parts taken to Nellis, which included taking replacement engines. Describing the deployed logistics footprint as “balanced, through our experience of the Baltics”, Bertoli adds: “we are pretty confident in its reliability.”
The carriage and release of GBU-16 training weapons was the subject of significant interest during media discussion, but Bertoli is quick to distance the activity from any operational imperative for Italy. The nation’s air force would only consider using this air-to-surface functionality “in very specific scenarios”, he says, and describes the “swing-role” demonstration as being intended to support industry’s efforts to export the type.
“Each nation has a certain area through which it promotes the export of the fighter. In order to be 100% sure of what we are proposing to the customer, we want to test the system, and make sure that everything is working fine,” he notes. Italy is heading a Eurofighter campaign to supply the type to Kuwait – which last year selected it for a 28-aircraft requirement, but has yet to sign a contract.
Although the Typhoon is now also being used routinely as a ground-attack asset by the UK Royal Air Force and Saudi Arabia, Bertoli says its primary role remains of greatest importance to Rome.
“Eurofighter will be the backbone of the Italian air force’s air defence for the future years,” he notes, adding: “we are going to use it for homeland defence, developing it with new weapon systems.” Italian jets currently carry IRIS-T and longer-range Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAMs. The nation is, however, among six European partners who will field MBDA’s beyond-visual-range Meteor from later this decade, also including fellow Eurofighter operators Germany, Spain and the UK.
The Italian air force already operates its AMX and Panavia Tornado IDS strike aircraft in the close air support (CAS) and ground-attack roles, and from later this decade will also begin introducing the conventional take-off and landing F-35A to frontline use.
“We have the AMX. We used that in an extended way in Afghanistan, and it proved to be a very good platform, and Tornado as well can do CAS,” Bertoli says. “Right now we are set as the Italian air force, because we have two assets capable of doing that, along with our [unarmed General Atomics] Predators.”
Referring to the Typhoon’s swing-role application, he notes: “We are developing it for a very low-threat environment, unique mission.” Italy will also integrate the 454kg GBU-48 precision-guided bomb for use with its Typhoons, but has yet to decide on whether to add MBDA’s Storm Shadow cruise missile. Italian company Alenia Aermacchi is the lead partner for weapons integration on the platform.
The Italian air force has an active fleet of 62 single-seat Eurofighters and 12 two-seat trainers, the earliest of which are 13 years old, according to Flightglobal’s Fleets Analyzer database. This also shows the service as having another 21 of the type on order.
The Eurofighter consortium has now delivered more than 470 aircraft, from combined multinational orders for 571. Also flown by the air forces of Austria and Saudi Arabia, this operational fleet has so far accumulated more than 330,000 flight hours. UK partner BAE Systems in February began the final assembly of the first example for Oman.
Bertoli says that lessons identified during the US exercise will be shared soon during a Eurofighter user group made up of the four European partner nations. The UK is also likely to discuss its involvement during Red Flag 16-1 earlier this year.
“That’s the way we can integrate the Eurofighter force in Europe,” he says of the information-sharing initiative. A first meeting was held last year, which included bringing together instructor pilots from each of the partner air forces.
“We ended up with a standard operating procedure for the Eurofighter community, so right now we are able for UK, Italian, Spanish and German jets to fly together in a standard manner. This is a great achievement, thinking about where we started up in 2004,” Bertoli says. “The plan is to integrate pilots and also technicians in the same way, so that we’ll also be able to do pooling and sharing from a ground support point of view: being able to operate as a single force.”
During the exercise, Italian aircraft performed 115 sorties, totalling 180 fight hours.
“To bring 190 people and eight jets 6,000 miles and be able to operate is a challenge,” Bertoli says. “We did that in a timely, efficient manner, and we are pretty proud of that.”
Source: Flight International