FOUR F-1 6s roar overhead on departure from Trapani airbase in Sicily, home of the 37th Wing (37° Stormo) and one of the Italian Air Force’s two main operating bases for the type. The first Fighting Falcons arrived there less than five years ago, replacing the venerable F-104 Starfighter. In three years time, the F-16 will be retired at the end of its brief tenure with the Italian Air Force.
On February 1, 2001, the Italian Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced its decision to lease the Lockheed Martin F-16A Air Defence Fighter (ADF) for the Aeronautica Militare Italiano (AMI — Italian Air Force). The AMI faced a capability gap caused by three separate issues: delays in the expected delivery of the Eurofighter Typhoon; retirement of the obsolete F-104 Starfighter fleet; and the termination of its lease of RAF Tornado
ADV fighters, which was becoming too expensive to operate.
It desperately needed a new fighter to fill the gap, and after some in-depth research, the US offer of F-16s was judged the best solution. Two Foreign Military Sales contracts (designated ‘Peace Caesar’) were signed on March 15, 2001: these included the purchase of 45,000 flying hours over a seven-year period, between 2003 and 2010, with a minimum of 48 sorties per day. It was agreed that the US Air Force would refurbish the aircraft; while Lockheed Martin and Pratt and Whitney would provide logistics support. The first 38 pilots would be trained at Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing, based at Tucson International Airport, and 25 technicians would undergo instruction at Lockheed-Martin’s facility at Fort Worth, Texas.
Under the contract, Lockheed-Martin was to provide 34 aircraft, four of them two-seat F-16Bs.
The airframes were selected by AMI officers from the storage inventory of the Aerospace Maintenance And Regeneration Center (AMARC) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. All 34 were sent to Ogden Air Logistic Center at Hill AFB, Utah, for rework and to have Falcon Up and Falcon 2020 upgrade kits installed. Other new equipment included the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220E engine, the AN/APG-66A radar, the APX-109 Interrogator Friend or Foe (IFF), the AN/ALR-69 Radar Warning Receiver, the AN/ALE-40 Chaff and Flare dispenser system, and an identification light (for intercepts) fitted in the nose port side.
The Italian Air Force purchased all the weapons carried by its F-16 fleet; AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air infra-red (IR) guided missiles (already in service with all the Italian fighters and fighter-bombers), and AIM-120B and AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM air-to-air radar-guided missiles.
The AMI decided to host the ‘Peace Caesar’ programme at Trapani-Birgi AB, Sicily, home of 37° Stormo. A second Wing — 5° Stormo — was also equipped with the F-16 at Cervia, the Forward Operating Base (FOB), in Northern Italy. Three F-104S ASA-M squadrons were selected to re-equip with the F-16: 10° and 18° Gruppo, part of 37° Stormo at Trapani, and 23° Gruppo, which formed part of 5° Stormo at Cervia.
In August 2002, 23° Gruppo, the first squadron to convert, sent its initial cadre of personnel to the United States for training. Five months later, upgrade work began at Cervia in preparation for the new fighter.
Training for the Italian pilots at Tucson included academic work, simulator slots and some 46 missions, these including handling, basic fighter manoeuvres, visual and beyond visual range [BVR] interceptions, combat air patrols, and in-flight refuelling — all designed to provide them with an advanced qualification on the F-16. Afterwards, some undertook an eleven-sortie flight lead upgrade course, while others — the most experienced — received additional instructor training. The first 38 AMI pilots trained to fly the F-16 were all combat ready on the F-104.
The first Italian Fighting Falcon (F-16A MM7238 ex USAF 80-0615) was officially rolled out at Hill AFB on May 9, 2003, and was one of the first five aircraft (three B and two A models) delivered. On June 28, the three F-16Bs landed at Trapani, followed on July 2 by the two single-seaters, all flown by US pilots.
The official service introduction ceremony took place at Trapani on July 17, and the aircraft wore a mix of 5° and 37° Stormo markings. Flight operations then began there, and included the pilots of 5° Stormo. Meanwhile, construction work continued at Cervia.
On November 23, 2003, 23° Gruppo was able to move back to Cervia, and on January 1 the following year it resumed Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duty within the Italian air defence system.
Deliveries were completed on November 20, 2004, when the last four aircraft landed at Trapani.
The F-16 is the backbone of the Italian Air Force air defence force and will remain so until Typhoon is declared fully operational with 4° Stormo at Grosseto (now working up to FOC) and 36° Stormo at Gioia del Colle (working up to IOC).
Between October 2004 and December 2005, F-16s based at Trapani and Cervia were the only AMI fighters declared to QRA. Air defence of southern Italy remains the responsibility of 37° Stormo, despite Typhoon being assigned to QRA at Grosseto since December 2005. This is a tasking the F-16 Wing will carry out until the end of 2008, when 36° Stormo at Gioia del Colle is also expected to be tasked with QRA.
Since March 29, 2004, the Italian Air Force has provided air defence (mainly with the F-16s at Cervia) to Slovenia, a NATO newcomer which currently has no air defence fighters.
As the main F-16 operating base, Trapani is well-placed to take advantage of the large areas of airspace over the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian Seas, which are perfect for air combat training. The two squadrons based there operate as a single unit, their missions planned by mixed teams (each squadron has its own training office), who work together on flying activities. The pilots come from both 10° and 18° Gruppos.
For the daily QRA tasking, one pilot is assigned from each squadron. Aircraft on alert are armed with one AIM-120B Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile and one AIM-9L Sidewinder missile, plus the 20mm rounds of the M61 Vulcan gun. The two alert aircraft must be able to take off within 15 minutes from the scramble order, and a second pair must be provided within two hours. No.23° Gruppo at Cervia also stands QRA, alternating with Typhoons based at Grosseto.
Most of the air combat training missions from Trapani are flown against other units. Since 2006, many Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) missions have been flown against 4° Stormo Typhoons from Grosseto as part of the type’s development and its work-up to full operating capability.
Apart from beyond visual range profiles, in which Typhoon pilots have the advantage of the aircraft’s radar and fusion of sensor information, in low-level dogfights the F-16 pilots at Trapani reckon that they achieve a similar operational performance, at least when armed with the same types of missile as the Typhoon. However, above 10,000ft (3,080m) they cannot compete in any aspect of flight, at either sub- or supersonic speeds.
Both 5° and 37° Stormo have a regular commitment to international exercises, including Spring Flag at Decimomannu, AIREX (a French exercise held at Solenzara in Corsica), the NATO Tactical Leadership Programme course at Florennes, and the European Air Group exchange programme. With less than three years of service left to the aircraft, there are sufficient numbers of qualified F-16 pilots in the AMI to finish the pilot training programme in the United States. The last Italian pilots trained on the F-16 at Tucson in 2007. By way of contrast, some of the existing F-16 pilots will begin training on the Typhoon this year.
No.37 Stormo’s aircraft fleet is managed as one entity. Under a new AMI maintenance strategy, aircraft are no longer assigned to individual squadrons but to a Gruppo Efficienza Velivoli (GEA — Maintenance Squadron) assigned to the Wing. Because of this, F-16s assigned to Trapani wear only a Wing, rather than squadron, badge and code -with the exception of a couple of flagships.
Under the US F-16 contract, the US Government maintains complete control of the aircraft’s configuration. Lockheed-Martin has a team of 60 technicians based in Italy, while Pratt & Whitney has six or seven. The American contractor personnel manage the supply and allocation of spare parts. Out of 550 AMI technicians assigned to 5° and 37° GEA, only a few trained in the United States.
American and Italian personnel carry out joint maintenance on jobs such as replacing wiring, and working on the airframe. Staff from Lockheed-Martin undertake the annual and monthly maintenance inspections. Each aircraft undergoes a major phase inspection every 300 hours, a procedure which takes up to 13 days to complete.
Airframe maintenance is concentrated at Trapani, with engine work assigned to 5° GEA at Cervia. There are two levels of engine inspection: 0 level (Operational Level); and phase level known as Intermediate Level).
The latter is only possible at Cervia using a purpose-built engine testbed facility.
When the F-16 contract expires in 2010, the aircraft will be returned to the US Government. According to current Air Staff plans, one of the two Wings (5° Stormo and 37° Stormo) will be disbanded. The airbases at Cervia and Trapani are due to become forward operating bases for Typhoon deployments.
As a result, 18° and 23c Gruppo will each cease flying operations with the F-16, and one squadron will be disbanded. In line with current Italian Air Force thinking, only 10° Gruppo, which bears the markings of World War One ace Francesco Baracca, and which has a long history, is certain to be retained. No. 10° Gruppo will be transferred to 36° Stormo at Gioia del Colle to become a Typhoon squadron.