An Interview with Lieutenant General Alberto Rosso,Chief of the Italian Air Force
Since you took over your position as the Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force in late 2018, what do you think will be the challenges and priorities the Italian Air Force needs to address?
Since its origin, Military Aviation has been faced with two challenges: how to effectively counter the air capabilities of the adversary and how to generate and integrate effects across the land/sea battlefield. Now, while the first challenge is common to the other services, marking their strategic relevance in their respective domains for the National Defence, the former seems to be more of an issue for the Air Force. In fact, it is undeniable that only the Air Force serves a purpose other than for itself, in order to enable the other components’ manoeuvre and operations. As a proof of that, jokingly, we could observe that while we have Joint Strike Fighters, Joint Direct Attack Munitions, Joint Tactical Air Controller, we do not have joint battle tanks, joint frigates, joint artillery or joint land/sea controllers …
These two challenges still exist today and, although not altered in their essence, they are exacerbated by the steep rate of technological innovation.
With regard to the air battle and the ability to counter potential adversaries, for example, we must consider that today’s new frontiers of hypersonic flight and sub-orbital operations will be tomorrow’s potential battlefield. Furthermore, ill-intentioned actors are already employing swarms of drones to carry out attacks on critical infrastructures. So our attention and our best resources must be focused on staying ahead of any possible threats that might come from these and many other new technologies. At the same time (if not earlier), we must be able to effectively employ new technologies, and this, in turn, brings about several new challenges. As we innovate and adopt new systems (whether defensive or offensive), we will be faced with the constant task of integrating legacy and new generation weapon systems. This is happening today, as we speak. Our legacy fleet, mostly 4th generation aircraft, is being pushed above and beyond what was thought possible just a couple of years ago. So, as our 5th generation systems are progressing along their own path of excellence, a considerable amount of time and resources have to be dedicated to ‘keeping everyone in the game’, because the interoperability of our own force elements is key for operational effectiveness and success.
This leads us to the second challenge: creating, delivering and integrating effects not only in the land and sea battle, but in (and through) the cyber, EW, sub-orbital and space domains. The ability to be effective in the scenarios that lay ahead of us requires a lot more than just technology, it demands a whole new mindset: a 5th generation transformation of the whole Air Force. The ability to gain and maintain information superiority will be necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure that we will always stay one or more steps ahead of potential adversaries. The quality, timeliness and reactiveness of our decision cycles must also improve. We must move from information superiority to decision superiority. Being able to sift through huge amounts of readily available information and orient the application of air power with speed and precision will be our ‘next level’ challenge. Effective strategic decisions will have to be enabled at the tactical level, if we want to stay one step ahead of our opponents. Even if we excel at creating a decisional advantage in the multi-domain battlespace, that might still not be enough. We also have to reconsider the way we plan and execute joint operations. The way we go about it today relies on Air Power’s ability to create air supremacy/superiority before any other activity is carried out on the ground. Future scenarios will not grant the same luxury. Supremacy will be impossible and superiority will be, at best, temporary. In these narrow windows of opportunity there will be no time to integrate the effects that each component planned in its own campaign: the effects must be ‘fused’ at the origin, as part of one unique and coherent decision process and delivered simultaneously before the window closes. The whole idea of joint operations might have to evolve into that of ‘fused operations’, and that is some very interesting food for thought!
Access to Space is among the current hot issues. What is the Italian Air force approach to exploit this new frontier?
Italy has been at the forefront of the European space endeavour. The Italian Air Force has pioneered this new frontier from the beginning, partnering in the Italian space program with Rome’s ‘Sapienza’ university and with the National Research Center since 1962. The IT AF took part in the successful launch of the first Italian satellite ‘San Marco 1’, on December 15th 1964, which marked Italy’s entry into the Space Age, the third nation in the world following the USA and the USSR. It has been a long series of successes ever since, and the Air Force contribution to the Italian space strategy is still of great relevance today. For example, 5 out of the 8 Italian astronauts today are Air Force Officers.
Having said that, space is not about history! When we look at issues dealing with space, we are looking at what, from an economic, security and defence standpoint, is becoming the primary physical enabling domain of human activity (sharing that role with the ‘non-physical’ cyber domain). In light of its relevance for security and defence, we therefore need to possess complete space situational awareness, and be able to protect the critical assets, ensuring the resilience of data, products and service from space. As an Air Force, we are taking a comprehensive approach and, therefore, we interact not only with military entities but also with academic and scientific research bodies and national industry. The Italian Air Force is fully involved in national space strategy, in particular through applications and research projects, as well as bilateral and multinational cooperation. This approach also contributes to preserving and increasing the knowledge of the national aerospace industry.
Space, Aerospace and Access to Space are concepts that will influence the way we think of operations in the future. While outer space (beyond the Karman line, at 100km of altitude) might have several claims on which Armed Service (if any) should preside over it, the Air Force sees the Aerospace Belt (between 20 and 100km) as the natural extension of the ‘airspace’ in which we operate today. I am convinced that new technologies will soon allow suborbital flight to take place in this portion of space and therefore, in the future, humankind will be able to use this layer to pass seamlessly from the air to space domains.
In fact, alongside Italian defence industry, we are currently paving the way for innovative aerospace programs, such as the launch of mini-satellites through high-performance aircraft, the effective use of stratospheric platforms for military purposes and the creation of spaceports for suborbital hypersonic flights.
Lastly, with regards to access and use of Space and Aerospace, I think our robust knowledge and experience in airspace control procedures will be extremely valuable in supporting the Civil Aviation Authority’s efforts to create safe and effective regulation, similar to what we did to allow RPA flight operations in civilian airspace, as I will discuss later.
How do you evaluate Italy’s position in the F-35 project?
With the F-35 program, the Italian Air Force has embraced the evolution to the 5th generation. We have already covered some of the implications of this ‘technological and cultural shift’, as I highlighted the challenges of co-existence of 5th generation platforms with legacy systems. Now I would like to emphasize why the main pillars of the 5th generation paradigm are so important for the relevance of our Air Force within the evolving scenarios.
Low Observability, a state-of-art sensor suite and stand-off ranges are key features in countering potential opponents with like-capabilities. These are vital elements that fit within NATO’s posture and, therefore, they make our contribution to the Collective Defence credible and reliable.
‘Omni-role capabilities’ allow the optimization of performance in operations (especially deployed), massively reducing the logistics footprint, enabling light and agile responses, while increasing sustainability of our efforts. When I say agile, I mean adaptive and capable of accomplishing a wide range of tasks and offering highly scalable effects, which vary from mere deterrence to effective use of surgically precise weapons.
More than ever before, data fusion technology offers the opportunity to directly receive on board and merge in real-time information from various sophisticated sensors, to generate a clear situational awareness and information superiority which favours specific missions and the effectiveness of joint forces. And that is not all. Alongside data fusion, we have an incredible capacity to distribute information, which in turn enables and enhances the operational envelope of legacy weapons systems. We are actually pioneering this way of bringing legacy systems into a 5th generation warfare scenario. As we progress, we are finding that, with proper and detailed TTP’s, you can have the whole spectrum of 5th generation actions and effects delivered by a balanced mix of legacy and 5th generation systems. We call this ‘5th Generation Transformation’.
Airborne air battle management capability, which can be considered the combined result of all the previous pillars, is the translation of the idea of strategic decisions at tactical level which I referred to before. It enables that much needed Decision Superiority that allows us to stay ahead of our opponents. Up until now, our legacy systems (and processes, I daresay) have been managed in a Centralized Control – Decentralized Execution paradigm. In the 5th generation world, both Control and Execution can (and should) be decentralized.
This might help to explain why we put so much effort in reaching all the milestones of the program ahead of time: first flight of an aircraft assembled out of the USA, in November 2015; first transoceanic flight, in February 2016; first operational Airbase outside of the US, in December 2016; full integration within Italian IAMD, in March 2018; first partner nation to declare IOC, in November 2018; first nation to operationally deploy the F-35 in a NATO operation in Iceland in October 2019. These are the Italian Air Force’s and the Nation’s most evident and convincing indicators of the level of conviction and commitment to the F-35 project.
Thanks to the relevance of RPA’s current contributions to operations and the even higher expectations for their future utilization, they have lately been playing an essential role in every discussion concerning the future capabilities within NATO. How does the ITAF plan to integrate the RPA capability into its core business?
The Italian Air Force has always been a strong believer and a dedicated operator of Remotely Piloted Aircraft. In the early times of RPA’s, when the idea of piloting from the ground was considered almost heresy, we took bold steps in order to incorporate RPA operations into the Air Force’s concept of operations, and it paid off. We were among the first nations in Europe to operationally employ the MQ-1 Predator, in January 2005 in Iraq. Since that time, we have been constantly expanding the operational envelope of our RPAs. We quickly moved from autonomous land surveillance flights to full integration of RPA’s in Composite Air Operations (COMAO’s). We have also pioneered Remote Split Operations, land-away operations and laser designation. From the beginning, we worked closely with our Civil Aviation Authority in order to regulate the coexistence of traditional and remotely piloted aircraft in the national airspace structure. Lastly, we frequently operate RPAs for Homeland Security purposes, such as surveillance for high visibility events (summits, G7-G8-G20, Catholic Jubilee, etc.) and Environmental Protection.
The truth is that our RPA capability is more than integrated into our core business! As a matter of fact, the integration of RPA operations has been one of the main drivers of change to our operational framework in the last 10–15 years. We have, by far, the most benign airspace structure and procedural framework to accommodate RPA ops. We have a very effective Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED) cell, which is already integrated within EUCOM and CENTCOM distributed PED network and will soon be included within the NATO AGS framework.
Speaking about NATO AGS, and taking into account the experience Italy has developed in RPA management, it is not surprising that NATO turned to Italy to certify the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system, which will operate from Sigonella airbase. The Military Type Certification recently obtained by AGS is a major milestone, which will allow the platform to access the Italian and European airspace structure and enjoy the same benefits as the Italian RPA’s. This is the first case ever in which a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) system has been granted such a certification. We devoted much effort to making this achievement possible, and we will invest much more to ensure that all 5 aircraft, planned to arrive between 2019 and 2020, will reach full operational capability (FOC) in 2022 as expected. I believe that AGS will provide the Alliance with a superior and more persistent ISR capability and consequently a greater level of ‘information dominance’. Furthermore, the combination of manned and unmanned ISR and combat platforms will enhance military options that, together with a top tier level of command and control underpinned by a strong data-link network, will allow commanders to achieve the military campaign’s goals.
As a commander, what are your main concerns regarding the training of Airmen under your leadership?
Human resource management is one of the main challenges we have. It represents the core business of the modern organization in a globalized and competitive world. What characterizes an Air Force is technology and innovation, so our personnel must be able to manage this challenge. Therefore, one of the Commanders primary responsibilities is to provide the best education and training possible for their personnel.
Innovations require new mindsets, new skills and often significant adjustments to master modern technologies and, therefore, my main concern has been to provide my airmen with the best tools for the training environment, as close to the real world as possible. This is precisely what happens for military flight training, which has always been a fundamental goal for the Italian Air Force. The quality of our instructors and the excellence of our training tools and programs are internationally recognized and highly appreciated.
As a matter of fact, in close synergy, the Italian Air Force and the aerospace industry are implementing a new state-of-the-art Integrated Training System (ITS), which is based on the close coordination of Live and Virtual elements that interact in a Constructive environment (LVC). At the core of this system lays the T-346 advanced trainer aircraft, which was specifically designed to fulfil the advanced training requirement of 4th and 5th generation fighter pilots. The aircraft is part of a larger community of ground-based training tools (emulators and simulators) with which it can interact during flight, thus allowing the optimization of training and a significant saving of resources. Just to give an idea, 2 aircraft and 2 simulators can perform a mission of up to 12 aircraft with an unbelievable degree of realism! Due to its characteristics, the T-346 based training is capable of achieving two significant added benefits: it considerably reduces the training burden of frontline squadrons, in consideration of the higher exit level of pilots; and can be employed as ‘companion trainer’ for those same units, thanks to its similarity with 4th and 5th generation aircraft. The combined effect of these factors, in turn, allows us to free up resources for the operational employment of our 4th and 5th generation fleets.
Inspired by the same philosophy as the ITS, but devoted to the earlier stages of pilot training, is the T-345 basic jet trainer aircraft: a modern trainer that was born from the challenge (accepted and won by the Italian aerospace industry) to produce a jet trainer at the same cost as a turboprop airframe. We aim to deliver the first course in January 2022.
Italy, as a valuable member of NATO, participated in several operations. How do you interpret the Italian contribution to these operations and the importance of the Alliance’s synergy?
I’m personally convinced that NATO is and will remain the cornerstone of allied security and defence for the foreseeable future. Having said that, decades of Peace Support Operations might have led to questioning the need for (and sometimes even the existence of) the Alliance. Today’s scenario appears different, however, and while the asymmetric and terror threats still exist, we also observe a resurgence of tension and instability among state-actors. In light of these trends NATO is and will be pivotal to our collective defence and security: no single nation can cope with the kind of risks and threats that lurk just over the horizon, and only within NATO’s core tasks can we all find the reassurance of deterring and/or effectively countering such threats. If that implies that nations might be called to project forces into regions that don’t seem to pose an actual and immediate threat to their specific interests … so be it! We can consider this an ‘insurance’ premium we all have to pay, in order to be covered when the ‘real’ emergency arises.
We believe in 360° vigilance and protection for and by NATO, so although Italy’s most urgent and pressing risks come from the Mediterranean Sea, we (Italy, and the Italian Air Force in particular) have been doing more than our fair share in feeding NATO’s Deterrence & Defence posture, by regularly covering slots of Air Policing on the Northern and Eastern flanks of the Alliance. We are so convinced of the necessity of this task that, not only did we do everything in our power to deploy the F35’s in Iceland last October, but, as of 2020, we are formally bidding to fill 3 quarterly slots of Air Policing operations every year in support of NATO’s deterrence posture. Along this same line of reasoning, we also expanded our initial commitment to the NATO Readiness Initiative to reach a total of 40 combat aircraft and several enablers.
Another fundamental aspect of our commitment to the Deterrence & Defence posture is the participation of the Italian Air Force in the main NATO exercises. This not only allows us to train Italian personnel in accomplishing joint and combined operations, but also guarantees greater interoperability of systems and procedures among the military forces of the Alliance. In addition to this, we have been seeking and exploiting every opportunity to perform common training activities, in particular during the Air Policing deployments. These are facts that clearly substantiate our strong commitment to the Alliance.
To conclude, how do you see the Italian Air Force in the future?
We pretty much covered it all so far, didn’t we? We described what the Italian Air Force will look like from the outside: a quality contributor to NATO’s posture with a highly capable force, fully projected into the 5th generation. Looking to the future, we will be capable of facing threats from state and non-state actors, from legacy and new domains; equipped with state-of-the-art technology and fully invested in the task of integrating, or rather, fusing effects with our sister components. We are highly committed to expanding the envelope of RPA operations and our ISR capabilities, while leveraging our outstanding training system to deliver first-class aircrews to all partner Nations.
So my final words will be dedicated to sharing with you how I see the future Italian Air Force from the inside.
Smaller and more agile, it’s inevitable that in the next 5–10 years we will lose a huge number of highly skilled and experienced airmen. They will take away with them some of what the Air Force is today. It will be sad and painful, but will it be destructive? I think not. Our younger recruits look promisingly in tune with the type of technology that we are about to embrace. In my view, they will be able to create agile and timely responses to the challenges we mentioned earlier or even to newer threats we cannot imagine today.
Motivated and committed, the generations of airmen that preceded us were focused and determined. They had clear enemies and built the Air Force based on that vision. My generation inherited that vision and that Air Force. We were disoriented at first by unexpected changes that brought about scenarios we never imagined, but then we coped, we transformed and we learned. We handover to the next generation the results of our learning and the ideas that go with it. Not just the technologies, although they are a fundamental part of it, but a mindset that will allow the future Air Force to face successfully a wide array of threats, some of them new and unpredictable. Motivation and commitment will be our winning tools.
Unsurprised and fit for purpose. Rather than a checklist or canned Response Options (like the ones we found at our Squadrons during the Cold War) our future operators will have an open mind and open system approach. They will have the ability and the opportunity to experience and experiment with every possible occurrence: Artificial Intelligence and advanced simulation will greatly enhance our preparedness and reduce the margin for unexpected threats. Furthermore, multi/omni-role weapon systems and advanced logistics and will ensure that, no matter when or where or how a threat to the Alliance emerges, we will be postured to face it.
I am proud and honoured to serve today’s Italian Air Force and I’m optimistic about the energy, motivation and competence of the younger generation: they represent our future and I firmly believe we will be in good hands.
Sir, thank you for your time and your comments.
Lieutenant General Alberto Rosso
is the Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force and he spent the majority of his operational career as an Air Defence fighter pilot.
1978–1982: Air Force Academy
2002–2004: Wing Commander, 4th Fighter Wing; responsible for the transition of the first Italian Air Force Fighter Wing from the legacy F104 aircraft to the Eurofighter Aircraft (EF2000)
2004–2007: Chief, Alliances Policy Office, Policy and Planning Division, Defence General Staff
2008–2010: Deputy Chief, Policy and Planning Division, Defence General Staff
2011–2013: Chief, 4th Department, Italian Air Force General Staff
2013–2015: Chief, Logistic and Infrastructure Department, Defence General Staff
2016–2018: Chief, Cabinet of the Italian Defence Minister
October 2018–actual: Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force