Italian Air Force Special Operations Forces training

The 21° Gruppo is one of the most famous squadrons of the Italian Air Force: formerly belonging to the 53° Stormo at Cameri, it has been a member the NATO Tiger Association since 1968. The squadron moved to Gioia del Colle on Mar. 1, 1999, and operated within the 36° Stormo until Mar. 1, 2001, when it was disbanded. The squadron was officially reactivated on Mar. 23, 2006 within the 9° Stormo at Grazzanise, with the aim to create a deployable flying unit able to perform a large variety of combat duties:

  • MEDEVAC (MEDical EVACuation) and CASEVAC (CASualties EVACuation)
  • Personnel Recovery: CSAR (Combat Search And Rescue), NEO (Non-combatant Evacuation Operations) and HRO (Humanitarian Relief Operations)
  • Light Reconnaissance
  • Air Marshalling
  • Special Operations insertion/extraction
  • Vehicle interdiction
  • Short range transportation
  • Helisniping

Most of the above mentioned missions were flown during the several Tours of Duty in Afghanistan that have seen the 21° Gruppo’s AB.212s (UH-1N in the US designation; UH-212ICO according to the Italian Mission Design Series) operating in support of the ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force) multinational force.

Since 2005, the Squadron is equipped with the AB.212ICO (Implementazione Capacità Operative – Operational Campabilities Implementation) a retrofitted version of the previous AMI-SAR model that will be employed until 2014-2015, when it is expected to be replaced by the new AW-101 CSAR helicopter. The AB.212ICO is equipped withECDS-1 Flares dispensers  for self-protection from IR-guided missiles and two MG 42/59 caliber 7.62 mm NATO machine guns on both sides of the fuselage. It wears an armored cockpit and fuselage to protect the 2 pilots and 2 gunners from small arms; noteworthy, the rudder area, vulnerable to bullets shot from the ground because of the observation windows, has been shielded with 3 inches of kevlar. The helicopter cruise speed is 90 – 100 KIAS.

The new outfit has increased the AB.212’s weight and the helicopter is unable to recover a survivor from the ground with the hoist  in the Afghan scenario [average height of 7.000 feet AMSL (Above Mean Sea Level) and ground temperature often above 40° Celsius].

The 9° Stormo, currently commanded by Col. Marino Francavilla, a pilot with 2,400 flying hours and a huge combat experience with helicopters in Somalia, Kosovo and Iraq, belongs to the 1^ Brigata Aerea Operazioni Speciali (1st Special Operations Air Brigade). Also belonging to the 9° Stormo since 2009 is the Air Riflemen Group, whose duty is to provide force protection, NBC defense, EOR (Explosive Ordneance Recognition) and EOD (Explosive Ordnance Deactivation), both at home and on deployment, within PSO (Peace Support Operations). The unit is currently deployed to Herat, where it ensures the protection of the local Forward Support Base.

The Air Riflemen Group is made of around 100 soldiers equipped with the standard assault rifle Beretta SCP 70/90 cal. 5.56mm, that will soon be replaced by the Beteretta ARX160, along with other firearms (sniper rifles, combat shotguns, guns). The unit has also some VTLM Lynx vehicles, with mounted Browning cal. 12.7 mm or  Minimi cal. 5.56 machine guns.

Much of the training activities take place at Grazzanise airbase, where the Air Riflemen operate with the 21° Gruppo and where we were invited to attend an Afghanistan-type operation involving both the rotary wing and the special forces of the 9° Stormo on Oct. 3, 2011: MEDEVAC needed to rescue a Rifleman wounded while securing a bridge located inside an insurgent-controlled area.

Giovanni Maduli took the following images.

I wish to thank Col. Marino Francavilla, Capt. Cristoforo Russo, and the ItAF PIO for giving us the opportunity to visit Grazzanise airbase during the SOF event.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.