US Approves GBU-53 And AIM-120C-8 Foreign Military Sale To Italy

AIM-120C-8 Italy
F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to the 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during a live-fire test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico on June 12, 2018. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Michael Jackson)

The weapons will equip the Italian F-35 fleet, with the AIM-120C-8 possibly being a temporary solution until the Meteor BVRAAM is integrated on the 5th gen aircraft.

After the U.S. Department of Defense published in December 2023 the contract for a new production lot of the GBU-53/B StormBreaker destined to Foreign Military Sales to Norway, Germany, Italy and Finland, the State Department has now approved the FMS to Italy of the GBU-53 and also the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM. Documents from the Italian Parliament explicitly mention the GBU-53/B and the AIM-120C-8, as well as the AIM-9X, among the modernization and renovation programs, with the first funds allocated in the 2019 budget law.

The GBU-53/B (also known as Small Diameter Bomb Increment II) Production Lot 10 contract did not provide details about the number of weapons involved, which can now be found in the Defense Security Cooperation Agency FMS notice. Interestingly, the notice mentions Italy already requested the FMS in the past, and thus the notification is for the combined total quantities.

As for the GBU-53/B, Italy will get a total of 173 GBU-53/B SDB-II All-Up Rounds and 14 GBU-53/B SDB-II Captive Carry Reliability Tests articles for a cost of USD 150 million. The contract also includes Weapon Load Crew Trainers and Practical Explosive Ordnance Disposal Trainers, equipment, support, spare parts, documentation.

Another very interesting detail is that the FMS notification mentions “Italy already has the SDB-II in its inventory”, although so far only the GBU-39/B SDB-I was disclosed among the weapons of the Italian F-35 fleet. We can’t exclude the possibility of an error in the notification on the website, because the GBU-53/B is slated to be integrated on TR-3-configured aircraft with the Block 4 upgrade, which is being delayed.

The SDB II was scheduled to complete the integration on all F-35 variants by 2023. The latest report from the Director Operational Test and Evaluation did not provide details about the F-35A, however mentions plans for early fielding of the weapon with limited capability on the F-35B/C in FY24, followed by the Initial Operational Capability in FY25. The integration appears to have been delayed by issues with encryption keys and aircraft, weapon, and mission planning software.

GBU-53 mockups and an AIM-120 during a fit check in an F-35’s weapon bay. (Photo: Raytheon)

Moving on, Italy will get a total of 24 AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, together with equipment, support, spare parts, documentation for a cost of USD 69.3 million. It is worth to say that the number of missiles is very small compared to similar contracts involving the sale of the AIM-120C-8 to other F-35 operators. The reason of this could be the intention to use the newer AMRAAM (Italian F-35s currently use the AIM-120C-5) as a temporary solution until the Meteor BVRAAM is integrated on the 5th gen aircraft.

The MDBA Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missile, which successfully passed the first phase of the Operational Testing and Evaluation campaign on the Italian Eurofighter Typhoon last year, is expected to become operational on the F-35 by the end of the decade. Work is already underway, with the Italian and British governments funding it, and it will be independent from the delayed Block 4, as it is being worked on together with the integration of the SPEAR 3.

For the sake of completeness, since we mentioned it, the Italian F-35s will also receive the AIM-9X Block II. The decision was first disclosed in 2022, with the info at the time saying that Italy will receive “a modest quantity” of AIM-9X Block II/II+ missiles part of the Lot 23 Production Contract awarded in 2023, with the delivery of the missiles scheduled for 2026. In that case the decision was due to the AIM-2000 IRIS-T not being integrated on the F-35.

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.