By Luca Peruzzi
Italy will have an integrated, joint Air Force and Navy expeditionary capability based on the F-35B STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) version aircraft being delivered and belonging to the two services. “We are working to have an expeditionary capability both from the land and the sea, deploying in a synergic and integrated way the 30 F-35B STOVL aircraft assets being delivered and belonging to the Italian Navy and Air Force, under the command and control of the Italian Joint Operations Heaquarters (COVI, Comando Operativo di Vertice Interforze)”, said Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, Italy’s Chief of Defence, speaking on 27 January to a group of media, aside the joint Italian Air Force and Navy exercise on the Pantelleria island’s air base, which saw the interaction of the two services’ F-35B aircraft in an expeditionary environment. The Italian Chief of Defence was sided by the Italian Navy and Air Force chiefs, respectively Vice-Admiral Enrico Credendino and Lieutenant General Luca Goretti.
“Today’s training event is fully part of the development process of joint armed forces capabilities, strongly supported by the Minister of Defense Lorenzo Guerini, and has sanctioned a further step forward in the integration process of 5th generation multirole aircraft. This activity started with the recent international exercise that involved the Italian Navy’s Cavour aircraft carrier and the F-35Bs belonging to the Italian Navy and the Air Force, together with the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and its embarked air group with UK and US Marine Corps F-35Bs”, the Italian CHOD added.
The joint expeditionary capability would come under the operational control of each service’s commander, depending respectively on the land-based or naval operational domain in out-of-area contexts, where the expeditionary force is requested to operate. “If we will operate in out-of-area context from land bases, the plan is to have the Navy’s F-35B becoming part of the Air Force component and under the operational command of same service’s commander, the latter responding to the Italian Joint Operations Command. If the mission will be carried out in a naval context, a Navy force commander will control the joint F-35Bs force, responding to the joint operations commander,” he explained adding that Italy will not follow the UK command and operational joint solution.
Italy’s Defence Chief also declared that no plan was yet defined regarding where to base the two services’ aircraft . The Italian Air Force has stationed its F-35A and B at Amendola, as part of the 32nd Wing, while the Italian Navy’s GRUPAER (Gruppo Aereo Imbarcato) is stationed with its Harrier II Plus to be replaced by F-35B at Grottaglie Naval Air Station near Taranto, which is also the homeport of its Cavour aircraft carrier. “We are working on a solution. All possibilities are on the table”, he said.
The joint exercise simulating the operations from an austere base, saw one each F-35B in service with Italian Air Force and Navy exploiting the STOVL capabilities of the two aircraft to land on the 1,300 meters long runway on the Pantelleria island and reach the Air Force detachment area, where a KC-130J belonging to the 46th Air Brigade was ready waiting for ‘hot-refuelling’ the two aircraft. The ‘hot-pit’ as this operation is known, saw the two F-35Bs being refueled simultaneously by one of the KC-130J pods while engines were running on the other wing to provide the necessary pressure, pumping the fuel from the aircraft tanks. The exercise was ‘a first’ for this kind of operation with two F-35Bs being simultaneously refuelled, and was conducted by personnel of the 3rd Wing of Verona-Villanfranca, the unit also providing on-site protection and control in case of expeditionary operations, supported by the 32nd Wing personnel to which the F-35Bs belongs. The 32nd Wing is the first and only current Italian Air Force unit to operate the service’s current F-35 fleet. The exercise continued with Composite Air Operations (COMAO) with Eurofighter Typhoons as well with air-to-ground operations, as part of the 4th and 5th generation platforms integration.
While already working together ‘in a synergic way’, the first next opportunity for the two services’ F-35Bs to exercise together will be the Italian Navy’s “Mare Aperto” exercise that will be conducted next spring. So far, the Italian Air Force has received only one F-35B while the Italian Navy has three aircraft, of which two in the US and one in Italy. The reduced number of aircraft and the low-delivery rate of them due to the past reviews, budget and reduction of the overall fleet of F-35 JSF has pushed the Italian MoD and the two Armed Forces to work together to give an overall 30 aircraft expeditionary capability with the 5th generation STOVL aircraft.
According to the delivery plan of the F-35B fleet for the two services, the next F-35B to be handed over will be assigned to the Air Force. “We will receive the aircraft in the March-April period”, unveiled the Italian Force Chief of Staff, general Goretti, who expressed his full harmony and strong support to this plan. The same harmony and support to the plan was expressed by the Italian Navy Chief of Staff Vice-Admiral Enrico Credendino. Asked about the initial operational capability of its fleet of F-35B, he confirmed the service will reach this milestone in 2024 with eight aircraft. The two F-35Bs in the US are planned to remain over there until next November.
While the F-35s already delivered to the Italian Air Force’s 32nd Wing are directed to replace the AMX fleet, which general Goretti unveiled was phased out (it ceased operational activity in December 2021 according to Air Force sources), the service is planning to soon put into service the first aircraft to replace the Tornado fleet. Answering a question on its replacement and the working activities on the Ghedi Air Base which currently accommodates the Tornado fleet, general Goretti said the phasing out of the latter platform will be completed in 2027, according to current plans. The working activities for the new infrastructures to host F-35s are proceeding without stopping Tornado activities, as it happened on Amendola air base with the AMX. Moreover, in order to speed up the integration and the standardization between different Air Force units, the first F-35A to be delivered to the 6th Wing, currently on Tornado IDS and based at Ghedi, will be initially stationed at Amendola. “The first F-35A aircraft for the Red Devils (the 6th Wing), wherever it will come from Cameri or Fort Worth assembly lines, will be delivered later on in 2022”, he said.
In parallel to the synergic and joint training and integration activities, the Italian MoD has also funded the necessary equipment for the expeditionary missions of the Italian Air Force. The Italian MoD is currently working on the procurement process of this equipment. According to released documentation, the tender regards the complex of shelters and CIS equipment for the secure environment Temporary-Special Access Program Facility (T-SAPF) necessary for F-35 deployments. “The equipment is expected to be delivered in one-two years’ time”.
The on-going plan to create an integrated and joint 30 F-35Bs expeditionary force which is expected to operate as over anticipated is expected to take to an end the attritions between the two services which have characterized the last years and the F-35 programme. The current mood between the head of the Italian Defence and services should push towards this solution.
Photos courtesy Italian Air Force and L. Peruzzi