The following article was published on the April 2010 issue of Air Forces Monthly
First to be employed in the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service, first to get the NATO Quick Response Force certification and first to be committed in providing air policing for nations lacking such capability within NATO, the Aeronautica Militare (AM) is unquestionably the air force that has achieved, earlier than any other operator, significant results with the Typhoon. The new weapons system has enabled the Italian Air Force (ItAF) to enhance and redesign Italy’s Air Defence by replacing both the F-104 and the subsequent various “gap fillers” (a process still in progress) with a more modern, scalable, effective and powerful platform. Since they entered service with the 4° Stormo (Wing) in 2004, the Italian Typhoons have quickly built up an experience in the full spectrum of the Air Defence missions taking part in several real operations as well as national and multi-national exercises, both in Italy and abroad. Nevertheless, the ItAF is not going to follow the example of the Royal Air Force, that expanded the aircraft’s original air superiority roles to also include a “swing role” capability, and Italy’s Typhoons will not undertake air-to-ground duties, missions that will be taken over by the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter).
Current status of the fleet
At the time of writing, the Italian Air Force (ItAF) has already taken on charge from Alenia Aeronautica 40 Eurofighters belonging to both Tranche 1 and Tranche 2. Regardless of the specific Tranche, Batch, or configuration Block, the Italian Defence Ministry Mission Design Series (MDS), designates as “F-2000A”, the 31 single seaters, and “F-2000B”, the 9 twin seaters delivered so far. Nevertheless, both variants are known by their popular English name “Typhoon” or simply “Eurofighter”. The aircraft are assigned to the 4° and to the 36° Stormo, respectively based in Grosseto and Gioia del Colle, the two Main Operating Bases (MOBs) of the Eurofighter programme in Italy. On both MOBs, the F-2000s are assigned and managed by the GEA (Gruppo Efficienza Aeromobili, Aircraft Efficiency Squadron) that maintains the fleet and make the aircraft available to the Gruppi (Squadrons) for the daily activities. Three squadrons are currently flying with the F-2000s: the 9° Gruppo and the 20° Gruppo OCU (Operational Conversion Unit), belonging to the 4° Stormo, that received the first aircraft on March 16, 2004, and the 12° Gruppo of the 36° Stormo, that received the first aircraft on October 1, 2007.
On a regular basis, at least one or two examples from each Gruppo are temporarily “loaned” to the 311° Gruppo (Squadron) of the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV, Flight Test Unit), based in Pratica di Mare, responsible for the evaluation, research, development and in-flight presentation of any weapons system employed by the AM. Those aircraft attend national and international airshows with the RSV, normally retaining their original squadron markings with minor customizations (usually, a small 311° Gruppo badge and the display pilot name applied below the cockpit). For instance, during 2009, the RSV flew with a Tranche 1 (T1) Block 2B of the 4° Stormo (MM7280 “4-13”), with a T1 Block 2 of the 36° Stormo (MM7270 “36-01”), with a Tranche 2 (T2) Block 8 (MM7296 “36-22”), again from the 36° Stormo, and finally with a F-2000B T1 Block 1B of the 4° Stormo (MM55097 “4-24”).
The last squadron destined to receive the new aircraft is the 10° Gruppo of the 37° Stormo, currently based in Trapani with the F-16 ADF. Although the roadmap was not officially confirmed, the squadron should relocate to Gioia del Colle to be annexed to the 36° Stormo by the first months of 2010. Most probably, a small contingent of pilots will have to delay the move and remain in Trapani until the beginning of 2011, flying the F-16 in support of the colleagues of the 18° Gruppo. as a consequence of the extension of the Peace Caesar programme. The contract, inked in March 2001, foresaw the purchase of a total 45,000 flight hours and logistical support for a fleet of 30 F-16A Block 15 ADF (Air Defense Fighter), 3 F-16B Block 10 OCU (Operational Capabilities Upgrade) and 1 F-16B ADF, in the period between 2003 and 2010. However, during 2009, the AM and Lockheed Martin, negotiated the prolongation of the leasing until the first half of 2012, a solution that will enable the ItAF to fly 14 of the original F-16s for an additional 18 months. With the activation of the fourth Typhoon squadron at Gioia, the ItAF will achieve the following “configuration”: 4 Gruppi (comprising 1 OCU) equipped with the F-2000 based in 2 MOBs, one in Northern Italy and one in Southern Italy, respectively home of the so-called “QRA Nord” and “QRA Sud”. The original plan foresaw the conversion to the Typhoon of a fifth squadron, the 18° Gruppo, that was intended to fly the Typhoon along with 10° Gruppo from Trapani airbase. However, the uncertainty surrounding the Tranche 3 deal and the new trend of concentrating all the front line assets on a few dedicated airports to reduce the force’s dispersal and the overall management costs, persuaded the AM in 2007 to review the initial project; as a consequence, both the 18° Gruppo and its parent unit, the 37° Stormo, will be disbanded as last F-16s return to the US and Trapani will become a DOBs (Deployment Operating Bases) of the Typhoon fleet, meaning that, although it will not permanently host any active F-2000 squadrons, for the entire duration of the programme, it will maintain trained personnel and equipments to support and handle cells of temporarily deployed Eurofighters. The other DOBs of the fleet will be Grazzanise and Cervia, where the locally based 23° Gruppo of the 5° Stormo will be disbanded in 2010.
Quick Reaction Alert
The 9° Gruppo made its debut in the SSSA (Servizio Sorveglianza Spazio Aereo, Air Space Surveillance Service) on December 16, 2005, undertaking the first QRA shift with two of the 7 F-2000As delivered to date. The aircraft belonged to the Block 2 performance release which provided the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) encompassing full carefree handling qualities with external fuel tanks, gun and missile firing clearances, and the ability to operate chaff & flares for self-protection as part of the initial DASS Defensive Aids Subsystems package. Two months later, on February 17, 2006, two F-2000A successfully completed their first operational mission in support of “Jupiter”, an operation managed by the AM and supported by NATO to protect the Turin 2006 Olympic Winter Games. The “Dardi” (from the squadrons’ radio callsign “Dardo”) were called into action to enforce a temporary No-Fly Zone (NFZ) created to protect Turin and the surrounding areas from unknown or threatening aircraft. The Typhoon flew directly from Grosseto, carrying a ventral 1,000 kilograms tank and two AIM-9L “Sidewinder” underneath each wing, and operated in CAP (Combat Air Patrol) within an air component comprising the F-16s ADF of the 5° Stormo, the MB.339CD of the 36° Stormo and the HH-3F of the 15° Stormo. The first interception took place on March 12, 2007, when two Eurofighters that were already flying a routine training sortie, were directed by an Italian Air Defense radar to identify and follow a Tunisian Airbus 320 that had lost radio contact with the civilian Air Traffic Control (ATC) overflying Southern Italy. Since that sort of “on call” air policing mission, the Italian Typhoons were increasingly dispatched to intercept aircraft that had FPL (Flight Plan) inconsistencies or lacked the required authorizations to cross the Italian airspace. During the fist three years, until December 31, 2008, Grosseto’s Typhoons alternated with Cervia’s F-16 providing alert duties in the Northern QRA: for two weeks Grosseto had a couple of fighters ready to depart in 15 minutes (“peacetime readiness”) while Cervia kept two F-16s in “stand by alert” (2 hours readiness), and vice versa. Because of the shared service, the first three years of QRA shifts, saw the F-2000s involved in just a single A-Scramble (Alert Scramble): on September 16, 2008, the Grosseto QRA was scrambled to intercept a Czech Boeing 737 flying from Tunis to Praha with a presumed radio failure (though the two fighters did not complete the mission since the civilian aircraft was able to establish the contact with the civilian Air Traffic Control before the fighters could reach it). From January 1, 2009, the 4° Stormo is on alert year-round and the Typhoon’ scrambles occurrences increased: on April 24, 2009, the QRA intercepted and escorted to the boundaries of the Italian airspace a Royal Air Force of Oman Airbus 320 that had entered the Italian FIR (Flight Information Region) without the required Diplomatic Clearance. Similarly, on May 27, 2009, two Eurofighters from Grosseto intercepted and escorted outside the Italian airspace a Cessna 551 belonging to the Montenegrin Air Force flying from Cannes to Wien, while on June 24, 2009, it was the turn of a Nigerian Air Force Gulfstream IV en-route from Abuja to Stockholm that was intercepted and identified since it lacked the required Diplo-Clearance. One of the most recent and famous events occurred on July 10, 2009, during the G-8 summit hosted by Italy in L’Aquila. A Primera Air Boeing 737-700, with registration TF-JXG, flying as GX-362 from Zakinthos (Greece) to Dublin (Ireland), with 153 passengers and 6 crew members, was escorted by a single F-2000 of the 4° Stormo scrambled from Grosseto. The fighter, using the radio callsign “Typhoon 99” was ordered to intercept the aircraft, that had requested an emergency landing in Rome Fiumicino airport, due to a technical problem, after the B737 had made an unauthorised descent from cruising altitude to FL200. The Italian authorities initially requested the flight to divert to Naples airport, but the commander refused to land in Capodichino as it required a longer runway and since L’Aquila and Rome were interested in that day by the G8 summit and a NFZ was active, the Italian COFA (Comando Operativo Forze Aeree) scrambled the Typhoon to intercept the “zombie” and escort it to landing. Even if the 20° Gruppo is the Eurofighter OCU, the Instructor Pilots (IPs) of the squadron contribute to the QRA shifts undertaken by the 9° Gruppo. On average the IPs are involved in 1/6 of the QRA shifts assigned to the Stormo.
The 12° Gruppo has performed its first QRA duty with the F-2000 on January 5, 2009, 5 years since the last alert shift undertaken with the Tornado F.3s leased by the RAF. The Typhoons of Gioia del Colle logged the first 1,000 flying hours on the Typhoon on December 1, 2008 and have been assigned the task of providing the air policing mission over the Albanian air space as requested by NATO since July 16, 2009. The 12° Gruppo has received 15 Typhoons belonging to both T1 and T2.
Towards full maturity
Having surpassed the first 10,000 flying hours on the Eurofighter on September 29, 2009, the 4° Stormo is the most experienced Italian Typhoon unit. “We have reached a high degree of maturity in the air superiority role as the goals we have achieved so far show” explains Col. Achille Cazzaniga, Commander of the 4° Stormo. “In some cases we have reached some milestones earlier than the other partners, but we have just been following the strict schedule that was drawn at the beginning of the Eurofighter programme, that foresaw the quick accomplishment of a combat capability with the new platform. We were able to take over the QRA shifts quite rapidly, sharing the effort with Cervia, and from Spring 2010 we will be fully responsible for the Air Defence of Northern Italy and Slovenia round-the-clock. Even if each milestone we have reached marked an important achievement in the history of the Typhoon in Italy, I believe that the NATO Quick Response Force (QRF) certification, not only ratified our compliance with NATO’s operational requirements, but represents also the most important sign of our excellent operational capabilities”. The evaluation was held in Grosseto between Jun. 10 and Jun. 19, 2009, within the “Discrete Jury” exercise, which tested the ability of the Wing to be deployed abroad for peace-keeping and peace-making missions. The exercise was not focused on flying activity only; it was aimed to evaluate many air wings’ activities, from rescue and firefighting to telecommunication services, self-protection and survival capabilities and, more particularly, logistic support and maintenance.
The deployment capabilities of the Typhoon fleet have been improving as a consequence of the participation to exercises like the Spring Flag and Trinax held at Decimomannu, the Typhoon Meet at Moron, Spain, the Anatolian Eagle, at Konya, Turkey, and the frequent TLP sessions at Florennes, Belgium.
“We have recently achieved the 10,000th flyng hour on the Typhoon, an accomplishment that we celebrated applying special markings to one of our aircraft: if you look closely at the tail of the aircraft you will notice that the decoration is made by the names of all the men and women of the Stormo. A tribute to the personnel that has been working on the aircraft and enabled us to reach these results”. The Stormo is currently equipped with about 25 Typhoons, 9 of which are F-2000Bs. The aircraft belong to many different configurations: Block 1, 1B, 2, 2B, 5, 8 and 8B. All the aircraft in configuration Block 1 and 2 will be upgraded to the Block 5 standard with retrofit programmes: the Retrofit 1 (R1) upgrade programme for Block 1, 1B and 2; and the R2 for Block 2B. Aesthetically, the aircraft are much more similar to one another as the main differences deal with the software releases and internal hardware where source code is hosted (or re-hosted). Functionalities evolve in terms of production software packages (PSPs): PSP-3, -4, -4.3 and 5 are those being used on the Italian fleet providing different features. Both variants in service are extremely similar to fly and pilots can literally “move” from one to another one without much problems; however the manner in which the aircraft fights, employs the weapons and provides sensor fusion, largely depend on the PSP software version. However, “new” doesn’t always mean “better”: since Tranche 1 aircraft have been completely developed, they offer, in terms of mission capabilities, something more than the Tranche 2 ones, which are in the early development stages.
Alert aircraft carry 1 AIM-9L and 1 AIM-120B (the AIM-120C5, available from Block 5 variant, should be integrated in the near future), cannon with 150 rounds and a drop tank. This configuration provides endurance to cover at subsonic speeds the entire AOR (Area Of Responsibility) of the QRA: a circle of 450 NM (Nautical Miles) radius centred in Grosseto airfield. Two external fuel tanks configurations have been rated so far: single 1,000 centreline fuel tank used for the QRA shifts and for the majority of the training sorties, and the double 750 kilograms wing tanks; a “ferry role” configuration, with 3 fuel tanks, was tested too but not used very often. The overall efficiency of the fleet has been constantly improving since 2004. “During the NATO evaluation we had to cancel a single sortie” says proudly Lt.Col. Filippo Trigilio, Commander of the 904° GEA. “We perform all the checks foreseen by the aircraft Maintenance plan, from the daily line checks to the Major Inspections, performed every 400 flying hours (fh) by the 1° RMV (Reparto Manutenzione Velivoli, Aircraft Maintenance Unit) at Cameri. Unlinke us, the 36° Stormo’s GEA performs the Major Inspections at Gioia del Colle with the support provided by the Alenia CWP (Contractor Working Party). With the experience we have gained in the last 5 years we have become quite independent from Alenia that keeps only a Field Service Representative here in Grosseto. The Eurofighter has not a standard maintenance cycle: between the daily checks and the 400 fh inspections, we don’t schedule any other intervention, unless we need to troubleshoot or replace a particular component, whose failure is signalled by the aircraft’s auto-diagnosis system”. As the aircraft are assigned to the 904 ° GEA, that makes them available to the squadrons, both the 9° and 20° Gruppo fly with either single or two-seaters. For the OCU IPs, flying with the single-seater F-2000A is important to remain current with the aircraft that they fly in the QRA service; the 9° Gruppo finds the F-2000B particularly “useful” in the most advanced part of the training that bring a pilot coming for the OCU’s courses, from the LCR (Limited Combat Readiness) to the FCR (Full Combat Readiness). An ab initio course of the OCU lasts on average 40 weeks and 60 sorties but, since the majority of the pilots assigned to the Typhoon already have a know-how of hundreds (if not thousands) of flying hours on other military jet aircraft, the course can be reduced up to 50% (typically for those pilots coming from the F-16 who have already acquired a certain experience in the Air Defence role).
Under Tranche 3A, by 2013, Italy will receive 21 Typhoons bringing the total to 95 (comprising 27 Trance 1 and 47 Tranche 2 examples). The aircraft will be used in the air superiority role, as Italy, due to the cost associated with the envisaged upgrades required by the integration of the air-to-ground weapons, has always been skeptical about a multi-role Eurofighter. At the end of 2008, answering some questions about the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter), Gen. Vincenzo Camporini, former ItAF Chief of Staff, current Defence Chief of Staff, affirmed that: “There’s no competition or conflict between the JSF and the Eurofighter. The Eurofighter was designed for the Air Defence, a role that the aircraft is perfectly able to fulfil, but it can’t perform the attack role in an economically sustainable manner”. That vision hasn’t changed with the Tranche 3 contract signed in July 2009. In a recent interview, Gen. Giuseppe Bernardis, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff, said that Italy did not completely rule out the use of Eurofighters for air-to-ground missions, since both T2 and T3 aircraft will have the ability to carry Paveway and JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) that are already used by the Tornado and the AMX, and will be carried in the future by the F-35s (that Italy plans to acquire in 109 examples: 69 conventional take-off and landing F-35As and 40 short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs). Hence, the air-to-ground mission is viewed as secondary for the Typhoon; provided their ability to use the ordnance in inventory for other aircraft, the Eurofighter will be possibly be used as “back up” attack platforms until 2040.
© David Cenciotti