This article is an abbreviated version of a longer essay written in June 2015. The full version can be provided on request.
Background and Introduction
Italian Naval Air Power plays a key role across the strategic concepts of Italian Maritime Power. The projection of capabilities and integrated maritime surveillance are two of the major pillars of Italian Naval Air Power. Italy, located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea with more than 8,000 kilometres of coastline, has an economy that is heavily reliant on the free use of the sea, as merchant and fishing fleets contribute significantly to the national GDP (Gross Domestic Product). One future challenge for the Italian Navy, and possibly other major Western Navies, is to increase capabilities that a Nation can project on the sea and from the sea, focusing on critical areas such as North Africa and the Middle East, in a budget-constrained environment. With the aftermath of the worldwide economic crisis of recent years still in place, military budget constraints may become ever tighter. The concept of ‘Dual Use’, which suggests that non-military activities can be supported when necessary using technologies, equipment and means available to the Armed Forces, could be the right path to build an efficient and valuable Italian Navy. While exploring this concept, Italy is investing in a better and more efficient Naval Air Power instrument to meet the sizeable challenge of increasing in capability whilst decreasing in size. Retiring old vessels from service in order to make savings, whilst at the same time raising funds to build new, more efficient ships is another challenge shared by Italy and other Western navies. The Italian MoD’s ‘White Paper Defence Book’ guidelines state that ‘only a correct balance between acquisitions and operational development can transform investments into a net gain.’ Investing in a modern and efficient navy, one which is enhanced by an associated growth of the air power instrument, could be the most appropriate method to achieve an affordable and reliable tool of foreign policy.
As the major world economies recover from global recession, the maritime environment for trade and communications will become even more important. This importance is likely to be bolstered by increased immigration from Africa to Europe and endangered by the continuing threat of maritime piracy and other forms of organized crime. All these will generate more pressure on navies to ensure the safety of sea lines of communication. Due to its particular geographical characteristics, Italian territory will be particularly vulnerable and, therefore, maritime surveillance and protection will be paramount.1 Recent NATO operations have emphasized the importance of persistence in the area of operations and the guaranteed presence of adequate military air power for a period suitable to ensure completion of the task. The Italian Navy must be prepared to play its role in increasing capability projection ‘on the sea and from the sea’ in order to have an influence throughout the Mediterranean Sea. As a nation, Italy must look more towards the south of Europe, North Africa and Asia as a source of both immigration and economic opportunities. At the same time, Europe as a whole should concentrate on North Africa and make a concerted effort to stabilize Libya, which is too often perceived as a distant problem.
A politically and economically stable Libya is necessary for a free Mediterranean. In the near future, therefore, the Italian Navy will be required to achieve increasingly complex and sophisticated goals, wherein threat deterrence and neutralization will be only part of the tasks required. The seas allow global reach and maritime freedom of movement as an advantage for all: those conducting legal business, those engaged in illegal activities and those who are countering them. Therefore, the seas are the ideal domain for ‘forward projection’ of any action, either military or economic.
New Challenges for Naval Air Power
Operating with a multi-dimensional approach, the Italian Navy will need to ensure the protection of Italy’s national interests, the development and support of local authorities as well as the promotion of growing levels of security and stability in crisis areas. To achieve this, Italian Navy doctrine purports the fusion of naval and air power – considering these two elements to be a solid, united and indivisible instrument. As confirmed in recent NATO operations, naval aviation is an essential force multiplier for the fleet since naval air power has the capability to project and operate on the sea and from the sea.
In fact, the Navy is a unique instrument characterized by organic aircraft, helicopters and unmanned vehicles that, with their dedicated crews and distinct capabilities, are considered ‘fully operational’ from sea platforms, with the advantage of being completely independent from land. This capability is considered a key element for a modern Navy. Projection of capabilities is a key attribute.
However, naval air power does not always have a strictly military function. Humanitarian Assistance, disaster Relief and non-combatant Evacuation Operations are good examples of how power projection capabilities can effectively fulfil non-combat missions in support of the civilian population. In the past, military power was only partially involved in supporting humanitarian assistance or disaster relief. Today, one of the new challenges for the entire Italian Navy, in particular for the Fleet Air Arm, is to support and find synergy for the concept of ‘Dual Use’2. An example of dual use in the event of crisis was deployment of the Italian aircraft Carrier Cavour during operation ‘White Crane’ for the relief effort for Haiti following the 12th January 2010 earthquake. The Cavour’s embarked aircraft facilitated complex operations such as medical support, transportation of civilians and material, as well as humanitarian and logistic support.3
Navies should always be a key enabler of Italy’s maritime security and prosperity, constantly maintaining or regaining warfighting capabilities and, at the same time, ensuring a full capacity to intervene across the spectrum of humanitarian assistance. Dual Use is now an inherent characteristic of all ships and units belonging to the Italian Navy and, for the above reasons, any newly commissioned Italian naval assets will be designed to meet the new requirements in services and technologies. Existing assets will be carefully managed during the period until the arrival of new ships and aircraft.
Downsizing Whilst Enhancing Capabilities
The need for a modernized Armed Forces is one of the most important factors for the entire NATO Alliance. A deep revision of the military instrument is required in order to make it capable of responding to a wider variety of potential scenarios and to be able to overlay new tasks and capabilities.
In 2013, the Italian Armed Forces, under the supervision of the Minister of Defence, started an important process of renovation and reduction. In recent years, the Italian Navy has operated in many circumstances to safeguard national interests, either autonomously or jointly with other services or agencies and within NATO-and EU-led forces. During 2012, according to Italian Defence Ministry statistics, Italian warships had an operational tempo of about 65,000 hours, while naval aircraft logged more than 12,000 flight hours, a marked increase compared with previous years. A large part of this was due to the enduring contribution made to the NATO-led anti-terrorism maritime activities in the Mediterranean.
According to projections provided by the Italian Defence Ministry, by 2025, fifty of the ships that are in service today will be decommissioned. Between 2012 and 2018, the Italian Navy plans to retire 30 combatant air platforms and support vessels, including 7 frigates. Many of these warships have a remaining service life of about seven years but their retirement was the best option to ensure that resources are available for the effective operation and maintenance of the newer vessels and aircraft.
Reduction in personnel, availability of ships and an increase in technical problems due to aging ships and aircraft meant that a swift response was necessary to avoid the loss of capabilities and capacity required to support national sea protection and interests. As the Chief of the Italian Navy, Admiral De Giorgi, reported in an audit carried out for the defence parliament committee the objective of the Italian Navy is to increase efficiency and effectiveness by replacing quantity with quality.
In order to fulfil the above objectives, in 2013 a new Italian Navy organization was designed in order to concentrate most resources into three major hubs: North, South and Islands, each of them including a naval base, a naval shipyard, and a naval air station.4 The Italian Navy, taking into consideration the economic resources available in the near future, completed a reorganization process in 2014, though portions of the plan have yet to be implemented. Aware of the increasing importance of amphibious power projection, the Italian Navy has planned to boost its amphibious fleet so that it becomes a major component of the fleet. The navy’s marine force, currently composed of three regiments, will be re-shaped for use as a single, agile, fully deployable unit, with the support of the new and more capable EH101 transport helicopter (replacement for the old ‘Sea King’).5 For the same reason, synergy is being enhanced between the Italian Army and Navy, with a formal agreement reached in 2013. This agreement means that Army aviation has begun training its pilots to operate A-129 attack helicopters from the flight decks of Italian ships. This interoperability between the Navy and the Army is part of a defence project to optimize available resources and avoid duplication of effort in the Italian Armed Forces.
Other than the acquisition of the new EH101 multi-role helicopter, the most important current programme for the Italian Fleet Air Arm is the introduction of the SH90 multi-role helicopter as a replacement of the AB212 employed in Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), which will be withdrawn from service in few years. In addition, another key challenge for the Italian Navy is the integration of unmanned aircraft known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) on board ships. Such a capability is not intended to replace piloted aircraft but to supplement their capacity. UAS may be particularly useful for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and can be used in risky missions without endangering any crew member. Experience with these systems so far supports the theory that such unmanned aircraft increase degrees of flexibility, versatility and persistence on board Italian Navy ships for missions such as counter-piracy and immigration control.
A further major challenge ahead for Italian Naval Air Power is the renewal of embarked fixed-wing aircraft with the gradual replacement of AV8B PLUS with the STOVL (Short Take Off and Vertical Landing) version of the F-35B. The F-35B is a revolutionary aircraft with extraordinary operational capabilities supported by a logistics system with global reach that will allow the Italian Navy to make a leap into 5th generation combat aircraft.
The Italian Navy is undergoing an important restructuring process, which is necessary for facing new economic and political scenarios. In the last five years, the situation in the Mediterranean has changed rapidly and a real sense of instability has spread throughout Europe. In addition, the Italian economy is heavily reliant on the free use of the sea and cooperation between NATO countries is key when facing these new challenges. This means that the Italian Navy, in combination with its Naval Air Power, must play an increased role in order to become a credible and effective instrument for both military and diplomatic purposes. Today, Italian Maritime Power is undergoing major transformation in order to ensure that it has the flexible and credible dual use capabilities necessary to perform both traditional warfare tasks and non-military ones, in support of national interests and humanitarian assistance. Investing to generate a better and more efficient Naval Air Power instrument is also a necessity. Rationalizing and merging personnel may be necessary in fields where technology effectively replaces the need for manpower, but a reduction in specialized technicians and aircrews is not acceptable if an appropriate level of professionalism is to be maintained. New aircraft acquisition for the future will empower the Italian Navy with a military power status in the world in terms of efficiency and capabilities. Investments in military capability are required in order to guarantee a secure and better life for our next generations.