Italy Increasing Tempest Funding And Planning New Support Aircraft Acquisitions

Italy Tempest
The mockup of the Tempest 6th generation fighter aircraft. (Photo: BAE Systems)

The Italian Air Force will get new tankers, SIGINT and CAEW assets while also continuing the development of special C-27J variants, as disclosed in the new multiyear defense planning document.

The Italian government published the new multiyear defense planning document (Documento Programmatico Pluriennale della Difesa) for 2021-2023, which illustrates the funding needed by the Italian military to sustain and modernize its forces. Many important investments can be found in the document, but let’s proceed in order.

The strategic situation is based on a reference scenario, called the “extended Mediterranean” region, which is currently subject to many important geopolitical changes. Among the critical aspects of the region, the document mentions the Libyan situation, the tensions between coastal countries that are rearming their military forces, the disputes about sea boundaries and commercial routes. These challenges add up to the global situation, with COVID-19 and the new role of Russia and China becoming increasingly important.

The Italian Ministry of Defence is focused on maintaining a balanced military power, while also renovating and potentiating it with new capabilities. An important novelty are the space and cyber domains, which are set to provide new space for innovation in the informational and decisional sectors.

The first major program mentioned in the document is the Tempest 6th generation fighter aircraft and the wider Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program. Tempest is intended to preserve the dominance of the air combat power by capitalizing the Italian and British participation to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. FCAS is described in the program summary as a system of systems, with an optionally unmanned aircraft, manned-unmanned teaming, advanced sensors and related technologies.

The planning sees a new investment of 2 billion Euro by the Italian government over the next 15 years, financing the research and development activities. The document mentions a total of 6B Euro for the completion of the research and development. This Italian investment follows the disclosure of a £250 million contract by the United Kingdom to formally begin the Concept and Assessment Phase, as part of a bigger £2 billion investment over the next four years.

This next phase of the Tempest programme will see investment in both digital and physical infrastructure on which the system will be developed, giving priority to the digital aspect as simulated design and testing can significantly reduce costs, time and emissions. The industry partners of Team Tempest will develop this way a range of digital concepts, embedding new tools and techniques to design, evaluate and shape the final design and capability requirements of Tempest.

Last year, the UK, Italy and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on the project, transforming the British FCAS project in a major international endeavour. Together, the three countries aspire to develop the concepts, sharing workload while maximising their national expertise as they strive towards a common goal. The goal of the MoU is to have an equal participation of the signatory countries in the activities related to Tempest, with positive effects on each own defense industry, small and medium enterprises, research institutes and universities.

The EC-27J JEDI flying over Iraq. (Photo: Italian Air Force)

The next program mentioned in the multiyear defense planning document is the continuation of the development of the dedicates Special Operations variant of the C-27J Spartan, called MC-27J Praetorian. A total fleet of three aircraft is planned to serve with the Italian Air Force. A total investment of € 99 million is estimated, with the first tranche over the next five years, worth 80 million, currently being approved.

The MC-27J development was first started in 2013, with the Italian Air Force envisioning palletized support and fire systems that would be used to convert three C-27Js already in service. The fire support configuration sees the aircraft equipped with a side-firing GAU-23 30 mm gun, the same used by the USAF AC-130J, mission systems and C3ISR equipment. The aircraft will provide support for the Special Forces of the Comando Operativo Forze Speciali (COFS) and was already tested during Special Operations exercises.

The defense planning provides funds also for the other special variant of the Spartan, the EC-27J JEDI (Jamming and Electronic Defense Instrumentation). A first tranche of 27 million Euro, out of a total required investment of 29 million Euro, is being distribute over the next four years for the Risk Reduction Phase 2, focused on the development of the final configuration of the JEDI Electronic Warfare system and the serialization of the fleet.

The JEDI differs from the baseline Spartan because it has been extensively modified to perform Electronic Warfare missions: along with a characteristic antenna on the tail, the EC-27J carry an internal JEDI system that is used to create an “umbrella” of electronic emissions that protect personnel on the ground from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). To be more precise, the program description mentions that the JEDI can perform convoy escort missions to increase the protection against radio-controlled IEDs.

The JEDI system has been completely designed by the ReSTOGE (Reparto Supporto Tecnico Operativo Guerra Elettronica – Electronic Warfare Technical Support Department), based at Pratica di Mare airbase. This unit is responsible for compiling, updating and managing the EW (Electronic Warfare) and self-protection libraries of all the Italian Air Force aircraft. The JEDI package can be installed on standard NATO pallets so as to quickly reconfigure the capability by means of a “roll-on and roll off” procedure.

Two airframes are believed to have been converted to the EC-27J variant (or YEC-27J in accordance with Italy’s MOD Mission Design Series), with the type reaching earlier this year the 5,000 flight hours mark since Aug. 10, 2016, when it was first deployed to Iraq for “Prima Parthica” (as the Italian Armed Forces contingent supporting Operation Inherent Resolve is dubbed at national level). Interestingly, the EC-27J of the Italian Air Force is the only non-American asset flying the Electronic Support and Protection mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Another priority program for the Italian Defence is the new multi-mission/multi-sensor aircraft, also known as JAMMS (Joint Airborne Multi-sensor Multi-mission System). This program, which was already mentioned in the Defense Policy Document last year, envisions a “multi-mission Gulfstream G550-based system with modern sensors for strategic intelligence and electronic superiority, able to integrate in a C4ISTAR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) architecture for real-time information sharing and to operate both in autonomous and joint environments, with future provisions for Multi-Domain Command and Control and Electronic Protection”.

A total investment of 1,223.1 million Euro is being financed for this program which, as we already reported, should cover the acquisition of the first two Full Mission Capable (FMC) aircraft and six “green” airframes that can be converted at a later stage to either JAMMS or CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) configurations, together with logistic and infrastructural support. According to the available info,  the new Gulfstream, whose designation is still unknown (supposedly E-550B or R-550), might be similar to the MC-55A Peregrine that the Royal Australian Air Force is purchasing for SIGINT (Signal Intelligence). Both aircraft also have L3Harris as prime contractor.

In continuity with the JAMMS program, the defence planning financed with 925 million Euro over 12 years the implementation of the CAEW system on a part of the “green” airframes mentioned before. The description further mentions that the two variants will be defined as CAEW and Electronic Combat, with the former providing Airborne Early Warning and Battlefield Management and Communication as Command and Control (C2) multiplier, and the latter focused on the inhibition of enemy C2 capabilities and the use Electronic Support Measures (ESM) to support friendly forces.

An interesting mention goes to the joint Future Fast Rotorcraft program, which has the objective of studying new helicopter technologies for the development of a Next Generation Fast Helicopter. More precisely, the planning document mentions the beginning of the second phase next year, looking for synergies with international programs. As already reported, Italy is one of the countries interested in the US Future Vertical Lift program, with Leonardo reportedly in talks with Lockheed Martin, which is looking for a European partner to handle European sales and share risk costs.

Another interesting mention goes to Loitering Ammunitions, which are getting a 3.88 million Euro investment over the next five years. This should be the first time that this new capability is being discussed for acquisition by the Italian military. The loitering ammunitions, which in the photo are represented by the Hero-30 developed by Israeli UAV manufacturer Uvision, will provide surveillance, reconnaissance and engagement capabilities to augment the protection of the forces deployed abroad. The program also mentions a focus on the reduction of the risks of collateral damage.

A rendering of the European MALE RPAS. (Photo: Leonardo)

The next program that we are going to talk about is quite unexpected. Among the measures to preserve the national Air-to-Air Refueling capability, the Italian Air Force is acquiring two new KC-767 tankers in their latest version and to upgrade the aircraft already in service to the equivalent U.S. Air Force standard. While not explicitly stated, this should mean that the Italian Air Force will become the next operator of the KC-46 Pegasus tanker, although it is not known if the Italian tankers will assume the new designation or retain the older KC-767 one, maybe as KC-767B to differentiate from the original KC-767A currently in service.

With this program, Italy will join Israel and Japan as export operators of the KC-46 Pegasus, with the latter also operating the KC-767A. The Italian government will invest 1,410 million Euro in the program, even if the total funds needed are still being defined. Following the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw an extensive use of the KC-767 to evacuate Italian citizens, the tanker program also includes new StratEvac (Strategic Evacuation) kits to safely transport patients who need intensive care.

The defence planning includes once again the European MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System) being developed by Leonardo, Airbus and Dassault. The program will fund the development, acquisition and logistical support of the aircraft as part of a European consortium focused on the incrementation of the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities. The drone will feature an open architecture with modular systems, easily upgradable and capable of safely flying in non-segregated airspace with other traffic.

Among its missions, the RPAS will provide Defence and Homeland Security, intelligence support, prevention and contrast of illicit activities, contrast of illegal exploitation of migrants, contrast of illicit oversea traffics and control of the national soil for the prevention of natural calamities. 1,872.72 million Euro are being funded for the European MALE RPAS, which is deemed strategic for the national industry and thus funded also by the Ministry for Economical Development.

Another program related to RPAS assets it the one regarding the MQ-9 payload. This program is funding 59 million Euro, out of a total of 168 million, for the upgrade of sensors, payload and command and control systems to the latest standard. Considering the presence of the generic mention of payload and the image of an armed U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, some analysts pointed to a possible weapon integration on the Italian MQ-9 fleet, a topic that has been in the talks for years. A quite generic description accompanies the investment, leaving the program’s goal open to interpretation: “The aircraft will provide incremented security levels and protection during convoy escort missions, making available [for ground troops] a flexible defence capability from the air. Moreover, [the aircraft] will introduce a new option for protection of ground troops and air assets during high intensity operations.”

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.