The Italian air force - along with the nation's other armed services - is struggling to adjust to the post-9/11 world and the simultaneous demands for homeland defence and expeditionary warfighting, while also coping with continuing reductions in budget and personnel. The latest round of funding cuts facing the Italian defence ministry is also prompting the military to reconsider its future capabilities, and to adjust a current imbalance that sees personnel expenditure account for 72% of its defence budget, with procurement and operations receiving just 14% each.
Italy's leased Lockheed Martin F-16s provide the backbone for air defence missions
With 45,000 personnel and more than 500 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, the Italian air force is close to completing a staff reduction process that will leave it with manpower of 44,000 and a more flexible structure capable of responding to both out-of-area and homeland security missions.
The air force has already adapted its air-defence command-and-control structure and is working to improve its air expeditionary task force concept - under which aircraft packages are made available on demand - to enhance its ability to provide combat support. The service currently has aircraft and personnel deployed to support operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and central Africa, and its transport fleet of Lockheed Martin C-130Js has logged more than 50,000 flight hours.
However, efforts to improve the air force's structure have been hampered by a cut in its operations budget this year to about €1 billion ($1.3 billion) - roughly half that of 2005. "This year the financial resources allow the service to produce a total of 92,000 flying hours - down from 116,000 in 2005 and more than 150,000 10 years ago," says Brig Gen Paolo Magro, head of the plans and policy department at air force headquarters. "This situation has forced the air force to focus on the firstline service, and in particular air defence, transport and combat support."
Expenditure on infrastructure, exercises and logistics support has been cut, says Magro, who adds: "The funding reduction is also having an impact on personnel care and morale, and there will be negative consequences if this situation does not change."
To cope with both multinational operations abroad and homeland security requirements, the air force is carrying out a series of key procurement and upgrade programmes. In one of these, its Eurofighter pilots and technicians are gaining experience under a support arrangement with Alenia Aeronautica. Twenty aircraft have been handed over and operations with the type are expected to double this year to 1,900 flight hours. Work also continues on arming the Eurofighter with air-to-surface weapons.
The first Italian unit to receive the Eurofighter - the 4th Wing - has operated Italy's leased Lockheed F-16s on air-defence missions since December 2005, and provided security during the Winter Olympics in Turin last February. Air policing services against slow-moving threats are provided by the air force's Agusta-Sikorsky HH-3F helicopters, while Selex Sistemi Integrati is serving as prime contractor for new national and NATO command-and-control systems.
National air-defence and out-of-area operations will be enhanced by the air force's improved tanker/transport capabilities, with two Boeing KC-767As to be delivered next year and two more in 2008. "Additionally, the first C-130J configured for tanking operations is expected to be certified by early next year," says Magro. The service is also expected to officially field its first of 12 Alenia C-27J Spartan tactical transports by year-end, to fill a gap left by the retirement of its Alenia G222s. The air force is also involved in international initiatives such as NATO's proposed Strategic Airlift Capability, under which it will gain an initial 300 flight hours a year from a shared pool of up to four Boeing C-17s.
Expeditionary operations will also be enhanced by the deployment of Agusta-Bell AB212s and HH-3Fs in combination with the air force's recently established combat support and special operations units. The upgraded HH-3Fs will be used until a replacement platform enters service under a yet-to-be-approved acquisition programme, while several AB212s are also being upgraded to support special forces operations in Afghanistan. Replacements for the current types could be the AgustaWestland EH101 and AW139/149.
Other current upgrade activities are focused on the Alenia/Embraer AMX and Panavia Tornado ground-attack fleets, in an effort to extend operations of these types until Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) enters service. Alenia is preparing the AMX to take part in multinational operations and to use precision-guided weapons, but the air force is struggling to find the funding to fully support its Tornado mid-life update, which includes new avionics, countermeasures and the Link 16 datalink. The service is also adding new weapons to the Tornado, including MBDA's Storm Shadow cruise missile, which has achieved initial operational capability following successful firing trials of four test weapons in South Africa (Flight International, 5-11 September).
The F-35 will be the mainstay for Italy's future air combat needs, and will be the first platform to give the air force a network-centric warfare capability. Italy is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding before year-end to take part in the project's production, sustainment and follow-on development phase. Service publications suggest it will buy a mixed fleet of at least 100 conventional take-off and landing F-35As and short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35Bs for its air force and navy.
Behind the front line, the air force is a member of the Advanced European Jet Pilot Training, or Eurotraining, scheme, with Alenia Aermacchi's M-346 advanced jet trainer considered a prime candidate to meet part of the proposed 11-nation requirement. Aermacchi has previously supplied Italy's MB-339 and SF-260 trainer fleets.
Surveillance and reconnaissance missions are being carried out using General Atomics RQ-1 Predator unmanned air vehicles, which have been operating in Iraq since they were introduced into Italian service. Magro says the air force also has a requirement to field new multipurpose platforms capable of providing electronic intelligence, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) and radar surveillance services, with the project to receive funding in the 2007-8 period. Additional surveillance services will come from Cosmo- SkyMed and Helios observation satellites.
Reflecting the expeditionary demands placed on the air force, Italy's army aviation command now provides some of its 5,000 personnel and 300-plus aircraft to perform combat and peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq and Lebanon. Despite facing similar funding problems, the service is implementing a modernisation plan based on the acquisition of 60 NH Industries NH90 tactical transport helicopters.
"By year-end, the first NH90 will begin acceptance trials and the first six helicopters will be provided by AgustaWestland to the army aviation training centre in Viterbo for evaluation, testing and training," says Italian army aviation commander Brig Gen Enzo Stefanini.
The first operationally equipped NH90s will be delivered to the Friuli air mobile brigade in Bologna, Casarsa and Rimini, and to the 26th special operations helicopter group in Viterbo in the second half of 2007, he adds.
To support the NH90's introduction into service, AgustaWestland will initially maintain a number of the helicopters for training and operational missions, and provide logistics support at technical centres in Rimini and Viterbo. Stefanini says the type's use will follow a revolution in army training, because since 2005 the aviation command has accepted students directly from the military academy and non-commissioned officers school, lowering the age of its new pilots.
In parallel with the regeneration of its transport fleet, the army is upgrading its Agusta A129 Mangusta attack helicopters. Ongoing modernisation is providing the aircraft with an Oto Melara 20mm swivelling gun, enhanced avionics and new communications, navigation, identification friend-or-foe and countermeasures suites. Stefanini says the service also expects to sign a contract by year-end to replace the aircraft's sighting unit. He describes this as "the first step of a wider modernisation programme to include new T800 engines, mission computer and avionics, weapon systems and platform modifications".
The army's projected future helicopter fleet will also have a reduced number of AB212/412s and Agusta-Bell AB206s, plus new combat support and heavy transport helicopters. The service is evaluating options to replace its CH-47C Chinooks, including Boeing's latest-generation CH-47F. Both initiatives currently lack funding and timescales, however.
The Italian naval aviation command is also implementing a modernisation plan to enhance its combat and network-centric capabilities. The service has a personnel strength of 2,200 and a fleet of Boeing AV-8B Harrier II Plus strike aircraft, AB212, EH101 and Agusta-Sikorsky SH-3D Sea King helicopters, plus Piaggio P180 Avanti transport and maritime patrol aircraft. However, the command is migrating its helicopter component to two types - the NH90 and EH101. A second batch of four EH101 amphibious support helicopters (ASH) will be delivered by the end of 2006, says naval aviation commander Rear Adm Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, who adds: "The Italian navy is expected to receive the first maritime NH90 in the last quarter of next year."
Fifty naval NH90s are on order - 40 for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare (ASW/ASuW) missions and 10 for transport and amphibious support duties. Led by AgustaWestland, the latter version has just passed its first series of sea trials using Galileo Avionica's OTS acoustic suite, including L-3 Communications' Helras very-low-frequency dipping sonar. Further avionics and system trials are scheduled for 2007.
"With the delivery of the last four ASH EH101s, the Italian navy will have eight ASW/ASuW, four airborne early warning and eight amphibious support helicopters," says Dragone. The EH101 ASH platform will be used mainly to support special operations units alongside modified AB212s based at Luni air station, near La Spezia. They will also provide submarine parachute assistance group services for diver operations, Dragone adds.
All the navy's EH101s have been fitted to carry FLIR Systems' Star Safire II EO/IR system to provide improved surveillance, while MBDA's Marte Mk2/S anti-ship missile is also being added to the inventory, having recently completed qualification trials. A contract to provide a new mission simulator to support the EH101 fleet should also be approved by year-end, the service says.
The navy's legacy fleets of AB212s and SH-3Ds are based at Luni, Catania in Sicily and Grottaglie near Taranto, and are used to support a wide range of tasks. A mixed fleet of 12 Sea Kings and AB212s, two EH101s and four AV-8Bs have been supporting the naval task force involved in the peacekeeping operation in Lebanon. The task force has accumulated more than 1,000 flight hours while conducting maritime surveillance, amphibious and land support operations, says Dragone.
Italy's AV-8Bs are also being modernised, receiving Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles and precision-guided air-to-surface weapons to enable them to serve until the navy's future STOVL-variant JSFs arrive. Meanwhile, the navy is also looking to expand its EH101 fleet, and to acquire a small batch of Alenia ATR 42 maritime patrol aircraft to fill a gap until funding is available to replace Italy's ageing Breguet Atlantic 1 fleet. An earlier funding crisis prevented Italy from taking part in the system development and demonstration phase of the US Navy's Boeing P-8A Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft, which could also have supported air force interest in a 737-based airborne early warning and control capability. Both requirements are now without funding.