Armed Abroad

Italy makes plans to arm Predator and Reaper UAVs

The Italian air force will become the second international customer after the Royal Air Force to be able to arm and employ in hunter-killer missions its U.S.-provided Predator and Reaper UAVs.

The White House is proposing the move to Congress, which has not rejected the request despite some members’ concerns. Indeed, Italy had already ordered an unspecified quantity of Lockheed Martin Hellfire missiles last year, noting that the approval process would be concluded in due time. In turn, delivery of the missiles could start soon.

Informally, Italy had approached the U.S. Defense Department about speeding the delivery of Hellfires by acquiring some weapons directly from U.S. production lots. MBDA has assembled a few hundred Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kits and delivered them to the Italian air force.

Technically, the General Atomics UAVs have been delivered to Italy with the full wiring and software needed to employ the weapons. The Reapers already have the underwing pylons— which also improve the platform’s aerodynamics compared with a configuration with no pylon attached—while the Predators were wired for the weapons when they were upgraded under a retrofit program carried out by the contractor, bringing them to the latest USAF standard. In total, the Italian air force plans to employ a dozen UAVs, six of each model, all assigned to the 32nd wing based in Amendola in southern Italy.

Air force sources say the service will be able to obtain an initial operational capability within six months from the U.S. approval. Firing trials are likely to be carried out in Sardinia before officials order a deployment in Afghanistan.

Italy ordered its first Predator in 2001 and Reapers in 2006. The UAVs were deployed initially in Iraq and later in Afghanistan and then in Libya. The air force wanted to arm its UAVs as soon as possible, but hit two obstacles. First the U.S. was reluctant to provide that capability to foreign countries, including its closest allies involved in combat operations in Afghanistan. As usual, the U.K. received preferred treatment; in contrast, Italy had to fight uphill to win over opposition in the State Department, Congress and some Defense Department circles.

A second hurdle involved then-Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa. For unknown reasons he vetoed both arming the UAVs and allowing air force fighter-bombers to conduct attack missions in Afghanistan. Strafing was permitted, but only in the most desperate situations. The decision meant that Italian troops had to rely on air support provided by allied countries within the International Security Assistance Force mission—although such support was not always available and rarely quick and effective enough. This policy became untenable when the same fighter-bombers, which were not cleared to bomb in Afghanistan, were employed in Libya against the forces of Moammar Gadhafi.

As soon as Italy’s new government was appointed last year, Defense Minister

Giampaolo di Paola lifted the veto in Afghanistan and then used his full political weight and personal connections (he was formerly chairman of NATO’s military committee) to obtain U.S. permission to weaponize the UAVs.

The process seems now to have been completed, and in theory the air force could start employing its UAVs with armament possibly by year-end or in early 2013. Any armed UAV will be immediately deployed in Afghanistan, where the Italian air force keeps a detachment of at least three.

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