A QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) cell deployed to an airbase in the northwest; fighters flying with live weapons during training flights: this is how the Italian Air Force deals with modern threats and shrinking budgets.
Italian Air Force 4.0: this is how it’s been unofficially dubbed. It’s the outcome of a restructuring phase that will enhance the effectiveness of the Air Power by leveraging joint, inter-agency cooperation and a more efficient use of the currently available assets.
In a long interview with Air Press, the Chief of Staff of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) Lt. Gen. Enzo Vecciarelli, provided many interesting details about the way the service is changing to face the most modern threats in an age of financial crisis, and with a plan to reduce its size (in terms of personnel) by about 25%.
The most interesting changes deal with the Italian Air Force’s primary mission: Air Defense.
After closing several airbases to concentrate its interceptors in just two MOBs (Main Operating Bases), Grosseto and Gioia del Colle, and one DOB (Deployment Operating Base), Trapani, the flying branch has realized that the current set up is strongly unbalanced: most of northern Italy is almost uncovered against the asymmetrical threat posed by ultralight aircraft or drones in the hands of terrorists.
For this reason, beginning on Sept. 1, 2016, a couple of Typhoons have started providing QRA duties from Cameri (in northwestern Italy), once the base of a Stormo (Wing) equipped with the F-104 Starfighter. From there, the Italian F-2000As (that’s how the Eurofighter jet fighters are designated in Italy) will be able to engage “renegade” planes much earlier than they would have done taking off from Grosseto (the airbase on H24 alert to provide air policing for all central and northern Italy and Slovenia.)
Although air superiority remains the Italian Typhoons primary mission, last year the ItAF has started the Operational Testing and Evaluation in the air-to-ground. A team of experienced pilots are already swing role-qualified but, for the moment, the Italians consider the air-to-surface capabilities useful in some niche scenarios and to support the platform’s export opportunities. (Author)
Even more noteworthy is the fact that, in order to be able to engage any aerial threat in the shortest possible time, nowadays all the fighter aircraft flying training missions, including the attack planes, carry live air-to-air weaponry so that the whole ItAF fleet of tactical assets contribute to the airspace surveillance duties: in spite of a bit of overhead required to service and manage many more aircraft carrying actual missiles, the new procedures enable a more efficient way to manage the fleet in accordance with the “train as you fight, fight as you train” motto.
Actually, even the SAR (Search And Rescue) helicopters, that ensure a round-the-clock operational readiness across the country, have been included in the air policing tasks in order to exploit their SMI (Slow Mover Interceptor) capability.
According to Vecciarelli, the restructing of the Air Defense and a more appropriate distribution on the territory allowed the Aeronautica Militare to quadruple the air defense capabilities at a very low-cost.
Whilst daily training sorties are carried out with two drop tanks, QRA aircraft are usually armed with 1 AIM-9L/M and 1 AIM-120B/C air-to-air missiles, cannon with 150 rounds and a single 1,000 kg centerline drop tank, are ready to launch from the shelters in the northern part of Grosseto airbase to cover the wing’s AOR (Area Of Responsibility): a circle of 450 NM radius centered in Grosseto and covering central and northern Italy, and Slovenia. (Author)
Although reinforced by several non-standard air defense assets (including the first multirole F-35s, that are expected to be delivered to Amendola airbase, to be taken on charge by the local-based 32° Stormo in the coming weeks), the Italian Air Defense’s main asset remains the Typhoon.
The Euro-canard has been providing air policing tasks since Dec. 16, 2005, when the 4° Stormo (Wing), first among all the partner nations, undertook the first QRA alert duty with the F-2000A from Grosseto.
Since then, the Italian Air Force has become the first to achieve the NATO Quick Response Force certification, has flown hundred alert scrambles, has supported NATO operations in Iceland, and enforced NFZs (No Fly Zones) during several highly-sensitive events, including the Turin 2006 Winter Games and Davos World Economic Forums, and has also taken part to Operation Unified Protector, flying sweep and escort missions over Libya.
From Jan. 1 to Aug. 27, 2015, as part of the TFA (Task Force Air) based at Šiauliai, Lithuania, four Typhoons of the 4°, 36° and 37° Stormo logged about 900 flying hours, 40 A-Scrambles (Alert Scrambles) and more than 160 T-Scrambles (Training Scrambles) in support of NATO BAP (Baltic Air Patrol) mission.
“Our involvement in the BAP mission is just the latest of several real operations we have taken part in the last years. […] We have the required know-how and a much mature aircraft,” told Col. Enrico Pederzolli, commander of the 4° Stormo, at Grosseto, in an interview to The Aviationist earlier this year.
On Oct. 31, 2004, the Italian Air Force flew the last operative mission of the iconic F-104, the “missile with a man in it.”
Of the 15 nations that had one of 2,580 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter produced (including prototypes) in their fleet, Italy is the one that more than any other, linked its fortune to this extraordinary interceptor. Employed also in the ground attack (both conventional and strike) and in tactical reconnaissance roles, the “Spillone” (“Hatpin”) marked, for better or worse, the daily life of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF), influencing its ambitions, choices and abilities for almost half a century.
Throughout this period of time, seven different versions of the F-104 were employed by the Italian Air Force: the F-104G, RF-104G, TF-104G, F-104S, F-104S/ASA, F-104S/ASA-M and TF-104G-M, equipping ten different Wings and fifteen Squadrons (other than the Reparto Sperimentale Volo) for slightly less than one million flight hours.
Although its very last flight with the Aeronautica Militare (the last air force to operate the Starfighter) took place few months later (as described in the book “Italian Starfighters” by this Author), the F-104 wrote the final chapter of its extraordinary career within the ItAF on October 30th, 2004, when the aircraft undertook the last QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) shift after being on alert, “ready in five” (ready to take off in 5 minutes from the alarm) for 40 years.
The 24-hour QRA shift for the 10° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 9° Stormo (Wing) at Grazzanise airbase, ended on Oct. 31 at 08.25 local time, with a Tango Scramble (a Scramble for training purposes) carried out by Maj. Aurelio Covotta, commander of the 10° Gruppo, and by Lt. Rolando Pellegrini, of the 9° Gruppo.
After the two armed aircraft had landed, the homage to this undisputed star of +40 years of history of the ItAF was entrusted to a very special formation whose leader was Gen. Pietro Valente, commander of the “Aquila” Division; number 2 Col. Vittorio Iannotta, commander of the 4° Stormo; number 3, Col. Gianpaolo Miniscalco, commander of the 9° Stormo; number 4, Maj. Giovanni Balestri, commander of the 20° Gruppo; and number 5, Gen. Settimo Caputo, Deputy Chief of Staff of Comando Squadra Aerea, who proudly wore on his flight suit the patch attesting 3500 flying hours on the Starfighter!
The aircraft (MM6890/4-50, MM6934/9-31, MM6930/9·99, MM6876/9-39, MM6850/4-16) took off in rapid sequence and engaged the sky field some minutes later to perform a series of fly-bys that were greeted with deep emotion and with a hint of sadness by the staff of the 9° Stormo and by those who had gathered along the taxiways of the operational area of the 10° Gruppo. After the last fly-by, the aircraft landed.
All except one: the 9·99 of Col. Miniscalco, that flew some high-speed passes in front of the public before the last pass at transonic speed with a vertical climb that preceded the landing that marked the official end of the longstanding permanence of the F-104 in the front-line units of the Aeronautica Militare.
After Oct. 31, 2004 the Starfighter continued to fly on the Italian skies for little less than a year with the Reparto Sperimentale Volo, mainly as a chase plane for the unit’s Eurofighter Typhoons.
Four Italian F-2000s have deployed to Gando: 1,800 miles from their homebase without logistic support. A first for Italian Air Force tactical aircraft.
From Oct. 18 to 21, four Eurofighter Typhoon jets, belonging to the 18° Gruppo (Squadron), 37° Stormo (Wing) of the Italian Air Force, from Trapani airbase, have deployed to Gando Air Base, in Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, to undertake cooperative activity with the Spanish Air Force within the framework of EAG (European Air Group).
The F-2000As (as the aircraft are designated in accordance with the Italian Mission Design Series) were supported along the 1,800-nautical mile journey to Gando by a KC-767A tanker with the 14° Stormo from Pratica di Mare that refueled the Typhoons during the 4.5 hours of flight: it was the first time ItAF tactical jets deployed so far from home without accompanying technical support.
Once in the Canaries, the Italian aircraft undertook DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training) with the Spanish Air Force F/A-18 Hornets in anticipation of a possible participation in DACT 2017 exercise in Gando next year.
Reportedly, this is what happened during SIAF (Slovak International Air Fest) at Sliac, Slovakia, on Aug. 29, the departures day, when a German Eurofighter Typhoon was forced to perform an emergency landing using the runway’s arresting system due to a hydraulic issue shortly after take-off.
Land-based military airfields operating combat jets use arresting gear systems to slow the aircraft down. There are three basic types of land-based systems: permanent, expeditionary, and overrun gear.
Expeditionary systems are similar to permanent ones and are used for landing aircraft on short or temporary runways. These can be installed and uninstalled in a few hours.
Overrun gear consisting of hook cables and/or elastic nets known as barriers (or Safeland) and are used as a backup system. These are usually installed at the end of the runway and raised if needed to catch the planes before they reach the overrun area.
By the way, emergency landing aside (that you can see in the clip starting at 02:47), the following footage is pretty cool!
Two such nuclear-capable bombers, flying in international airspace, were intercepted and escorted by RAF Typhoons in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) during a long-range sortie on Sept. 22.
Two RAF Typhoons at RAF Lossiemouth (callsign Y5R11 and Y5R12) were launched to intercept and escort the Blackjacks as they “skirted” the British Isles heading southwest. The interceptors were supported by a Voyager tanker launched from RAF Brize Norton and E-3D AWACS from RAF Waddington. The “Lossie” Typhoons handed over the two “zombies” to the southern QRA from RAF Coningsby.
It’s not clear where the Tu-160s flew after they flew close to the British Isles but they were probably taken on charge by other interceptors scrambled from nearby NATO countries.