The Italian navy is evaluating the options available to boost and enlarge its fixed-wing combat aircraft force as it prepares to complete negotiations to build a second carrier.
Its immediate short-term aim is to find additional Boeing/BAE Systems Aerospace AV-8Bs to equip both carriers. Further ahead, the navy is looking at other possibilities, including the Joint Strike Fighter and a variant of Eurofighter.
The new carrier, tentatively named Luigi Einaudi, is due to be laid down next year and enter service by 2006/2007. With a displacement of between 22,000 and 25,000t, and a 220m (720ft) long flightdeck, it should be capable of accepting a wing of 20 helicopters and aircraft.
Following the latest design review, the warship is now to be built as a dedicated carrier rather than the originally envisaged amphibious vessel. The removal of the stern landing dock as well as the vehicle deck and most of the cargo capability will allow more room for aircraft and helicopters. The carrier will have the capability to embark 350 Marines, but only for deployment by helicopter.
The navy's combat aircraft force consists of a single squadron, the Gruaper, with 16 AV-8B Pluses and two TAV-8Bs. The aircraft are being improved with air-to-ground and air-to-air armaments including the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM, and Boeing JDAM GPS guided bombs, on top of the already available Raytheon Maverick missile and Paveway IIs .
The single squadron will be unable to field detachments on both the current carrier, the Guiseppe Garibaldi, and the new warship. The navy had originally hoped to buy a further eight AV-8B Plus aircraft, but the option was not exercised before the line closed due to lack of funding.
Now a fall-back solution is being discussed with the US Marine Corps for the acquisition of four to six remanufactured USMC AV-8B airframes.
With 20-22 aircraft, there should be enough to field two operational detachments of five to six aircraft each, while carrying out training duties ashore and maintaining a small attrition reserve.
Alongside the AV-8B decision, the navy is also looking for a longer term replacement. The preferred option is the short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) version of the JSF.
The navy is discussing with the country's air force the possibility of financing a 5% stake to participate in the JSF engineering, manufacturing and development phase. The air force's prime interest is the conventional take-off landing variant.
Other fall-back options are being considered - particularly as the Garibaldi is due to replaced around 2015, funding permitting, by a bigger new generation carrier.
Eurofighter has briefed the navy about a low-cost arrestor landing/angled deck variant of the Eurofighter that could operate from the Einaudi, at reduced weights and a more radically modified naval version of the aircraft.
The final fall-back option is the so-called Harrier III programme: a development of the AV-8B Plus that Boeing and BAE Systems are quietly studying. Should the STOVL JSF not happen for any reason, then the US Marine Corps and several other navies will need a replacement.
The investigation centres on what can be achieved with the basic Harrier II design. A modified, lengthened airframe and a more powerful engine, plus new avionics are among the options being studied. If Boeing loses the JSF contest, it is possible that an improvement of the Harrier II could be offered overseas as a low-cost alternative.
Meanwhile, the Italian navy has time to wait and see what happens - its current AV-8B force is still young and the new carrier is not going to be around for at least seven years.
For the Garibaldi replacement exploration, talks have already been held with the French and UK navies to find out if a co-operative project can be conceived to develop a new design. If the deck of its future carrier is large enough, the navy's options will expand considerably.
Italy's review of its future naval aircraft needs reflect similar debate within the UK, which is also reviewing the JSF, modified Eurofighter, and Harrier III to equip its next-generation aircraft carriers.