Andy Nativi/GENOA

The Italian air force is searching urgently for a fighter to fill the gap until the Eurofighter becomes operational. Concerns were raised by last year's Kosovo conflict and the amount of time it will take to get the four-nation Eurofighter combat aircraft into service.

The air force plans to inform the Ministry of Defence of its choice in the next few months. It hopes for a deal to be finalised by the end of the year and for deliveries in 2002-3. The aircraft will remain in service, in decreasing numbers, until 2010-2. Among the types being considered are the Dassault Mirage 2000, Lockheed Martin F-16, RSK MiG-29 and potentially a renewal of its Panavia Tornado F3 lease with the UK

The Italian air force relies on two squadrons of leased Tornado F3s and five Lockheed F-104ASAM units for its air defence. Italy has 121 Eurofighters on order, set to arrive from 2002, but the first squadron will not become combat ready until around 2008.

The urgency of the air force requirement was underlined by Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, which demonstrated the need for an effective air defence system. The Yugoslav air force mounted sorties westwards over Bosnia towards Italy. While NATO aircraft shot down the intruders, the events highlighted Italy's proximity to the frontline. The Balkans are 70km (43 miles) from Italy at the nearest point. There is also concern about potential problems across the Mediterranean.

Previous Eurofighter delays resulted in the Italian air force seeking an interim solution - the lease of 24 Tornado F3s and Matra BAe Dynamics Skyflash medium-range air-to-air missiles from the Royal Air Force. Alenia has also recently modified 49 F-104s.

The "interim fighter" debate has restarted as Italy needs to renegotiate its 10-year Tornado lease, which expires in 2004. The aircraft could remain in service until 2010-12, but the RAF is putting its F3s through the Capability Sustainment Programme (CSP)and Italy will need to do the same to ensure aircraft can be supported.

Initial estimates suggest it will cost L150 billion ($69 million) to put its Tornados through the CSP. This figure has to be added to the lease fees, the support and training costs and balanced against a view that there are better ways to lease combat aircraft. Italy also has a shortage of aircrews and the Tornado is a two-seater.

As a result, the Italian air staff has talked with NATO air forces and governments and expects to request offers for aircraft shortly.

The air force seeks a pay-by-the-hour arrangement. The air force will specify 8,000-10,000h flying hours annually and the number of aircraft it requires each day at different bases. The air force will perform first and second line maintenance, but the supplier will carry out higher level support.

Source: Flight International