Italian Navy Cavour aircraft carrier’s “Ready for Operations” campaign with F-35B in the US gains momentum

By Luca Peruzzi

The Italian Navy flagship, the STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) aircraft carrier ITS Cavour (CVH 550) arrived at Naval Station Norfolk (Virginia) on February 13 under the “Ready for Operations” (RFO) campaign to conduct a series of operations alongside US military assets and certify the platform, its crew and first Italian Navy’s pilots under conversion in the US, to safely land and launch the F-35B STOVL aircraft from the recently renewed and upgraded naval platform.

The Cavour STOVL aircraft carrier has reached the US after having left the Taranto Naval Base on 28 January and conducted a logistic call at the Rota Spanish Naval Base. With crew, flight and additional personnel totalling about 600, under the Cavour commander Captain Giancarlo Ciappina, the Italian aircraft carrier has arrived at Norfolk Naval Station, where it will remain for two weeks in preparation for follow-on intense at-sea operations in the Western Atlantic, embarking an F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) test team to conduct a series of tests and functional activities to create a safe flight operating envelope for the STOVL variant of the 5th generation aircraft aboard the recently upgraded ship.

These refitting and upgrading activities needed to operate the new aircraft, which is replacing the in-service Boeing AV-8 Plus Harrier II, were conducted on the Cavour between December 2018 and May 2020. The work was carried out at the Taranto Naval Arsenal by an industrial team led by Fincantieri and including Leonardo, under the control of Italian MoD’s Naval Armament Directorate, with the participation of a wide number of small-to-medium enterprises and involved personnel from the same Taranto Naval Arsenal.

In addition to flight operations personnel, ITS Cavour also hosts elements of the Italian Naval Aviation’s Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati (GRUPAER), the squadron currently operating the AV-8B Plus Harrier II to be replaced by the F-35B, as well as personnel of the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th Helicopter Groups with four rotary-wing assets. The latter include two NHIndustries NH90s in both ASW/ASuW and multirole transport versions and two Leonardo EH-101 helicopters also in both maritime patrol/anti-submarine and amphibious/special forces support versions, to ensure support to naval and flight operations in the US-based Cavour RFO campaign.

While crossing the Atlantic from Italy, ITS Cavour was met by the Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Stout (DDG 55) and conducted a three-day interoperability exercise with support from Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 7 and Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing (CPRW) 11, said the US Navy in a press statement on Cavour arrival in Norfolk. Specific events included integrated ship maneuvering, low-slow-flyer detect-to-engage, anti-surface warfare activities with P-8A participation, air defense/air intercept control event with F/A-18 participation, and C5I interoperability events in the Western Atlantic from10 to12 February.

“Operating in the Western Atlantic with our NATO allies presents a mutually beneficial opportunity to enhance both of our Navies’ capabilities,” said Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, Commander U.S. 2nd Fleet. “Supporting our Italian allies in certification of their aircraft carrier increases our collective experience in safety and combat abilities. We are stronger together.”

“We are deeply grateful for the warm welcome received by the U.S. Navy 2nd Fleet upon our arrival in the Western Atlantic waters,” said the ITS Cavour CO. “We are very proud to share with the US Navy community such important certification deployment, which will provide ITS Cavour and the Italian Naval Aviation with the 5th generation air combat capability of the Joint Strike Fighter”, he remarked.

Upon arriving in Norfolk, ITS Cavour was hosted by USS John. C. Stennis (CVN 74) nuclear aircraft carrier support personnel and its commanding officer, Capt. Cassidy Norman. Stennis is coordinating and providing all pier services required by Cavour, to include refueling, diving operations, equipment and personnel on load, security, and contingency medical functions.

Welcomed by the Italian ambassador Armando Varricchio, the ITS Cavour and its embarked personnel will remain at Norfolk Naval Station for two weeks, where it will conduct all the preparation for the follow-on at-sea operations. As anticipated, the aircraft carrier will embark the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) team from Naval Air Station Patuxent River (Maryland) with two specially instrumented F-35B developmental flight test aircraft from the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron TWO THREE (VX-23), which have begun Field Carrier Landing Practice (FLCP) flight training ashore in preparation for the Cavour deployment since early February, and support equipment. “Italy is a critically important Cooperative Program Partner in the F-35 enterprise,” said Andrew Maack, F-35 Pax River ITF chief test engineer and site director. During the at-sea carrier-based flight test, planned to run until the end of March, ITF members with the engineering and test pilot expertise and experience will gather data that will verify compatibility between the 5th generation fighter aircraft and the Italian naval fleet’s flagship. “These information will contribute certifying the ship for the Italian Navy’s operation of its own F-35Bs, the key weapon system of the carrier”, said the US Navy press statement.

Following the platform certification, the Cavour and her crew will conduct the carrier qualification procedures for the first six Italian Navy’s pilots under transition on the new aircraft with the USMC Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501) at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, South Carolina, the unit earmarked for training and converting on the F-35B not only US but also foreign pilots. It is likely that for the activities on board the Cavour Italian pilots will use the two Italian Navy F-35Bs that are currently part of the flight line of VMFAT-501, thanks to the existing agreements between the two Armed Forces. As anticipated, the Italian Navy has so far received two F-35Bs, while the third is expected to be delivered by the Cameri’s FACO (Final Assembly and Check Out) facility in May. Considering that in the original plans, this aircraft should have been the fourth and not the third, it is likely that this aircraft will be sent to the USA to join the two machines dedicated to the conversion to the new aircraft.

According to the Italian Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, “with this pace of activity, program milestone, aircraft assignment plans to the Navy already established, the achievement of the initial operational capability (IOC) of ITS Cavour with the new aircraft, is expected by the end of 2024, if all goes as it should go without delay, with eight F-35B aircraft in line and at least 12 combat ready pilots already qualified for operational use”.

Photos courtesy Italian Navy and US Navy