71° Gruppo: the Electronic Warfare "made in Italy"

The following article was published on the May 2002 issue of Air Forces Monthly.

With the pending withdrawal of the last PD-808GE, the Aeronautica Militare Italiana, seriously risks to loose an experience of 30 years in the Electronic Warfare (EW) field, despite the recent Kosovo war showed how in a modern conflict, the survival of aircraft and crews is largely dependent on the presence of electronic warfare dedicated assets in the Theatre Of Operations. David Cenciotti explains past and future of the EW in the Aeronautica Militare Italiana.


The United States Navy and Marine Corps, were the aircraft that flew the most during Operation Allied Force; there was no mission without an escort performed by EW aircraft that could blind or deceive the Serbian radars. Just like more famous aircraft as the E-3 AWACS, the EW assets were the first to take off and the last to return to base, because they were fundamental to keep the Yugoslavian IADS (Integrated Air Defence System) under constant pressure while bombers attacked their targets, so that at the end of the hostilities, after 79 days of war, the Prowler crews had logged more flight hours than the pilots of any other aircraft.
After the end of the Balkans War when the “decision makers” decided to put on the paper the so-called “lessons learned”, the United States, that for sure don’t lack EW aircraft (having also EC-130E and H, and RC-135 in the orbat), discovered that despite having more than 25% of EA-6Bs in the theatre of operations between February and June 1999, a lot of sorties were cancelled because not all the requests for electronic escorts could be granted hence a decrease of the number of possible strikes. Even the stealths operated in areas sanitised by EW operations.

Italian approach to the EW

Italy, that has neither the stealths (for the moment and for the next 20 years at least) nor the Prowlers, is in the midst of the Mediterranean Sea, a part of the World that is continuously an area of threats (just think to the never ending Balkan wars or to the unstable Libya that has been recently rearming). In case of conflict, it would be compelled to give the task of escorting the strike sorties (should these be performed autonomously without US or NATO help) to the crews and equipment of the 71st Gruppo. This squadron, belonging to the 14th Stormo of the 9th Air Brigade “Supporti Dedicati” (Dedicated Support), is the only unit within the ItAF to be responsible for the Electronic Warfare and ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) missions, that are conducted within deep secrecy from the Pratica di Mare airbase, next to Rome. Main task of the 71st Gruppo is training all the units of the integrated air defence, both national or NATO, and the support to the naval and ground activities, by way of the discovery and identification of hostile electromagnetic emissions.
The “tools” in the hands of the 71st Gruppo for accomplishing its missions are the PD-808GE (Guerra Elettronica, Electronic Warfare) and the only example of G-222VS (Versione Speciale, Special Version) ever produced by the Aeritalia. During the year 2000, the 303rd Gruppo at Guidonia disbanded and its aircraft (P-180 and P-166DL-3) were taken on charge by the 71st Gruppo, despite their role is not the EW.
There are only 5 PD-808 still airworthy, 3 are GE-1 version, produced in 1972; 2 are former PD-808TP upgraded to the GE-2 standard. Both versions are aesthetically similar (but the tail antenna); what is really different is the on-board ECM (Electronic Counter-Measures) equipment. Despite nobody is willing to unveil the details of such equipment because of secrecy matters, a quick look in the fuselages of the two versions permits to see, inside the GE-2, a panel for the control of self-defences “chaff”, a panel for the jamming of radio communications and few other peculiarities.
As the Squadron Commander, Maj. Gattola explains, personnel of the Gruppo, is involved with two kind of duty: training activity and operative missions. The former is very important to provide degraded electromagnetic environment for the radars of the Air Defence, SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles), fighters: the “PD” was always a good aircraft with good performances for such a role. “This is shown by the consent that this aircraft has gained in Italy and abroad, and is demonstrated also by the effects that the old emitters of the P-808 still have on all the Western systems”. For these reasons the aircraft is a good mean for the training of Radar Operators that have to work in jammed environment: in this respect the participation to national and foreign exercises, like the Dynamic Mix or Tactical Leadership Programme, must be judged. In these exercises the aircraft has the task to “disturb” the air defences by jamming radio communications between AWACS, fighters and GCIs (Ground Controlled Interceptions).
“In the second kind of activity the Gruppo is involved (the operative missions) where precision and data management capabilities are strongly required, the results are deeply influenced by the antiquity of the equipment”.
“Currently, effectiveness of the PD-808GE in real scenarios is limited to the support missions and ESM (Electronic Support Measures) activities” told us Gattola.
To various problems, that must be addressed to the age of the equipment, other deficiencies (mainly due to the flight characteristics of the platform) must be added: scarce endurance, low speed and lack of advanced navigational systems have effects particularly bad for an EW aircraft. However, the range of frequencies emitted and received and the range of the antennas are still important peculiarities of the PD-808.
A typical mission is developed in two phases: the first, “passive”, of interception, localisation and identification of the electromagnetic sources that can be associated to known systems; the second, an “active” phase, foresees the use of jamming and deceits aimed to deny their use by the enemy.
The PD-808 is still a good asset only in the “passive” phase, in which it is still able to ensure satisfactory results, while because of the low emitting power it is no longer effective in the “active” one.

Future developments

In a couple of years the PD-808 will be withdrawn from active service. For the daily training activity the ItAF seems to be inclined towards purchasing flight-hours from civil companies that provide ECM services, like the Phoenix Air, that uses Learjets, or the FR Aviation that flies the Falcon 20. During some recent exercises Natinads and Mothia, the aircraft from these two companies provided the accomplishment of EW missions working together with Italian fighters and GCIs.
Even if this activity has permitted to reach a good degree of realism in these operations some doubts raised about giving in foreign hands such a delicate activity. In fact, to perform EW sorties, these foreign companies must have complete acknowledge of the secrets of the Italian Air Defence, details that were kept secret for 40 years. Furthermore, this kind of contribution means the experience gained in these decades by the 71st Gruppo is going to be billed.
To this question, Maj. Gattola answered us: “the importance of the EW is enormously increasing. Those that still think this is a marginal aspect of the war are destined to change their minds as soon as they will find the need to consider it before planning any sortie. Kosovo war just confirmed what was already shown in other operations. A quick look on various conflicts of the century would be impossible but would also give the idea of the growth of the EW. If we just look at the Kosovo, we can observe how EW presence to put enemy defences under pressure was the “conditio sine qua non” of the air operations”. Future is already clear: the EW efforts will increase. All of this is opposing to the forthcoming future of the Gruppo that is decreasing its electronic warfare involvement in favour of transportation, radio-aid, aerophotogrammetry. During this year the 71st Gruppo will end the EW commitment with crews destined to other areas.
Gattola gave a comment: “the acquisition of the Tornado ECR put the Aeronautica Militare Italiana among the advanced countries in this important field but leave ItAF “uncovered” in the soft-kill area, where there’s no need to destroy the enemy air defence but is important to make it harmless, by way of jamming”.
Something different is going to happen to the G-222VS. The main aircraft duty is the acquisition and storage of the signals emitted by the enemy defence systems, an activity that permits to keep under strict control the EOB (Electronic Order of Battle) of the enemy, enabling a constant update of the allied aircraft self-defences and the update of the radar site and mobile SAM positioning. ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) emissions are extremely important during a campaign where the knowledge of the exact position of SAM batteries and radars enable pilots to plan ingress and egress routes to the target areas avoiding threats. One of the reasons of the downing of the F-117 near Belgrade during Allied Force can be also addressed to the wrong positioning of an EW platform and the movement of a SAM battery that ELINT aircraft and recce ones weren’t able to localise. ELINT is paramount when aircraft are called to operate in some countries that use old systems upgraded in a still unknown way. We have tried to ask Gattola if PD-808 and G-222VS were used during the Allied Force. His answer was clear enough: “the answer to your question resides in the missions the aircraft were built to fulfil. For what concern the PD I think I have already answered talking about its passive (ESM) capabilities. Dealing with the G-222VS, this aircraft performs SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) activities. These are particularly important being a peacetime strategic-level activity. Lately, the development of the weapon system and the rapid change of the scenarios, made the SIGINT a more tactical activity. The need to perform surveillance of the electronic spectrum in an operative area is reaching the critical levels and is spurring towards that direction”.
The G-222 exploits his endurance to orbit for long periods nearby the theatre of operations listening and recording all the emitted radio signals. Even though there’s no confirmation of this, also some foreign languages experts should join the crew during some missions to translate the radio communications of the enemy and understand the most important messages.
The G-222VS upgrade is at the top of the ItAF and Defence priorities, while there’s no substitute foreseen to replace the PD-808. The “VS” is flown by ItAF pilots but operates for all the armed forces, that’s why Gattola told us he couldn’t unveil the main parts of the upgrade program of the G-222. Someone speculated the aircraft could be replaced by a dedicated, modified version of the Gulfstream G.III operated by the 31st Stormo at Rome-Ciampino for State flights. In any case, it will be a medium size aircraft, with good endurance, equipped with both onboard and outboard ECMs.
For a long period, in Italy, an ECM version of the AMX “Ghibli” (AMX-E) was considered as possible the successor of the PD-808, because it would embody the advantages of using a modern fighter and the possibility to carry High-Speed Anti-Radiation missiles (HARM) in OCA (Offensive Counter Aviation) missions. Despite the fate of the version seems unclear, many people had doubts on the possibility to give to only two men (pilot and navigator) the management of a complex EW mission that is currently performed by a team of experts. The Cdr of the 71st Gruppo doesn’t agree: “Such an evaluation about the validity of the dual-seat project and the management capabilities can be done only keeping the EW peculiarities well in mind. In this respect the complexity of the electromagnetic scenarios is always increasing. However there’s also a tendency to increase automation of the operations. If the future in the EW activity could see the use the UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicles), I can’t understand why you can’t give in the hands of only two men the management of an “escort jamming” mission or electronic reconnaissance. This means that more work on the ground will be required before take off”.
The 71st Gruppo is going to change: no more EW, just SIGINT missions, with the only G-222, and more transports flights and aero-photogrammetry missions using recently acquired aircraft. The introduction of these latter is a demanding commitment but the experience of the crews coming from Guidonia will make integration of new specialisation easier.
In the meanwhile, should the Italian pilots be called to fight a new real war, they would have to rely on the jammers offered by US and NATO and on the aircraft self-defences because the national EW experts will be flying new aircraft like the P-180 and P-166DL-3 learning a brand new job.

© David Cenciotti

The author would like to thank 71st Gruppo Cdr Maj Gattola, and Lt. Papiri and Montefusco, for the assistance with this article.