Riccardo Niccoli looks at a relatively new organization within the military aviation, formed for rapid deployment in support of troops on the ground.
THE ITALIAN Aviazione dell’Esercito ( AVES, or Army Aviation) is one of the most potent and complete land force air arms within NATO, with a history dating back to 1951. Even so, for the past half-century its operational capacities have been limited to helicopter transport, reconnaissance, and, more recently, anti-tank attack, capabilities further fragmented in support of large units operating in the field.
In Italy, the concept of air-mobility has been the subject of debate since the end of the 1970s, but it was only in the mid-1990s, in the aftermath of major geo-political and strategic changes within Europe, that the Esercito realised the need for a truly air-mobile unit able to put into practice the new doctrines emerging in the fields of air-mobility and air-mechanisation. The operational scenario had changed, and from an army of conscripts brought in to confront the Warsaw Pact, the Esercito was gradually transformed into a professional army whose main task was to deploy multi-role brigade level units in out-of-area operations.
To begin with, it may be appropriate to define air-mechanised operations as those performed principally by attack helicopters, during which the ground forces are involved solely in support of the air operations, without engaging in combat. Air-mobile operations, on the other hand, are those in which the assault forces manoeuvre with their own ground equipment with helicopters to engage in combat from the air, and continue the operation both in the air and on the ground.
The unit selected by the Italian Army as the source of support for this new capacity was the Brigata Meccanizzata Triuli’ at Bologna, reporting to the Comando Forze di Proiezione (Deployment Force Command) in Milan. It was made up of 6° Reggimento (Rgt) Bersaglieri, 66° Rgt Fant Mecc (Fanteria Meccanizzata — Mechanised Infantry) ‘Trieste’, 33° Rgt Carri (Tank Regiment), the Rgt Savoia Cavalleria’ (3°) (Savoy Cavalry), 21° Rgt Art Smv (Artiglieria Semovente — Self-Propelled Artillery) ‘Trieste’, and various brigade support units. Consequently, it was a classic mechanised unit, equipped with Leopard 1 tanks, M113 APCs. and M109L self-propelled 155mm guns.
The process of reconfiguration began in 1998, when 7° Rgt ‘Vega’ of the Aviazione dell’Esercito was relocated to the military airbase at Rimini (formerly the home of 5° Stormo [5th Wing] Italian Air Force). The officer selected to lead the ‘Friuli’ was the then Brigadiere Generale (Brig Gen) Luigi Chiavarelli (today Commander of the AVES), an officer with solid experience both as a pilot and parachutist. Subsequently, on January 1, 1999, 7° Reggimento ‘Vega’ was assigned to the ‘Friuli’ Brigade, which, coincidentally, was stripped of the 33° Rgt Carri. Initially it was decided to leave the ‘Friuli’ with its mechanised infantry component (the ‘Bersaglieri») and its self-propelled artillery, allowing it to perform a variety of roles and to deliver greater fire-power. However, it became clear that the Brigade needed to be lighter and more flexible, and that it needed more specialised personnel. This resulted in 6° and 21° Reggimenti leaving, and the Brigade’s flying component being reinforced on May 1, 2000, by a second AVES regiment, 5° Rgt ‘Rigel’. On the same date, ‘Friuli’ was officially re-designated as a Brigata Aeromobile (Airmobile Brigade).
Not surprisingly, the transition from a mechanised to an air-mobile unit proved neither quick nor easy. The main difficulty was that the unit had no previous experience of its new role, and no technical manuals, training procedures or operational practices existed. A working group was convened at Brigade Headquarters, drawing on proven officers with a wide range of experience, commanded by the then Lt Col Piferi. This group studied the results achieved by other NATO nations and adapted their theories to the Italian Army. This was done cautiously at first, on the ‘don’t run before you can walk’ principle, amalgamating the fundamental constituents (the flying component and the infantry), and developing what was probably the most important element — the air-mobile way of thinking. The group also devised the training procedure leading up to the air-mobile qualification, known as POS 14: this defined the timing and methods used in developing the training element, which from May 2000 delivered qualifications to the entire 66° Reggimento di Fanteria, to the flying crews, and to the commanders at all levels.
The transformation process lasted for some four years. Apart from the training difficulties encountered during this time, there were other problems — including the substantial demands being made on the Army’s assets in terms of financial resources and personnel, and the out-of-area deployments the Brigade was tasked with undertaking by the Stato Maggiore Esercito (Army General Staff). Units were involved in Operation JOINT GUARDIAN in Albania and in Kosovo between October 1999 and April 2000, and between October 2000 and March 2001. Working round these, it also took part in Operation FORZA PARIS in Sardinia.
The qualification programme took place around the units’ bases and their normal training areas, and in addition, personnel took part in major exercises, including international missions. The most significant steps in the process were Exercise DRAWSKO 2001, held in Poland between September and October 2001, in which the deployed Brigade validated its first component on a tactical group level, the 2nd Company of 66° Rgt. In June 2002, Exercise TOLFA 2002 was held at the Monte Romano training area at Lazio, where activities centred mostly on operations mounted deep behind enemy lines. Here the unit was able to test the air-portable Pronal system, which allowed a deep Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP) to be established, both in daylight and at night.
In May 2002, the Brigade was taken over by its present commander, Brig Gen Enzo Stefanini. In November 2002, it went to Capo Teulada, in Sardinia, for Exercise SILVER MOON 2002, conducted by 5° Rgt ‘Rigel’, which constituted an autonomous air-mobile force. These manoeuvres were also used for testing procedures for air-reconnaissance operations with Rgt ‘Savoia Cavalleria’ and the Distaccamenti Acquisizione Obiettivi (DAO — Target Acquisition Detachment) of 185° Rgt AO in carrying out Target Hand Over with combat helicopters.
Between May and June 2003, the unit took part in a second exercise in Poland — DRAWSKO 2003 — which involved 7° Rgt ‘Vega’ as the main task force which qualified the 3rd Company of the 66° Rgt and Interim Operational Capability of the command post of the Brigata. The final part of the training programme, which also resulted in the qualification of the 1st Company of the 66° Rgt and delivered Full Operational Capability (FOC) to the Brigade command post, was Exercise FORWARD CHALLENGE 2004, held in March that year at the Capo Teulada range, in which all the ‘Friuli’ regiments took part. Here the Brigade demonstrated its ability to conduct operations involving the simultaneous use of more tactical groups, plus reinforcements and additional assets in various combinations, such as land and anti-aircraft artillery, nuclear, biological and chemical units, DAO detachments, tank units, and electronic warfare assets.
During the qualification phases, command posts at all unit levels organised themselves to meet the characteristics of air-mobile employment. The development of field command and control structures was conducted in a standard mode, which required setting up a principal command post under canvas beforehand; a mobile land command post (Deployable Communication Module — DCM) housed in a VM-90 vehicle; and an in-flight command post (in an A.109 helicopter), the system being completed by a field control tower, mounted on an ACM-90 truck.
The concept of Main Task Force at regiment level was also carried out, with the object of planning and conducting any air-mobile operation autonomously. The command cell of the Cavalry Regiment was given the role of instituting the air-scouting tactical mission, centred around a combination of the combat helicopter (A.129) and a heavy AFV (the B-1 Centauro armoured car). Further standardised operational procedures were developed to fulfil specific missions: for example, the conduct of advanced air-mechanised operations (deep operation) intended to strike targets some 93-124 miles (150-200km) behind the Forward Line of Own Troops (FLOT), thanks to deep FARP deployments. In this context it was necessary to develop procedures in co-operation with the DAO, as well as to become familiar with the use of the equipment required for Deep FARP re-supply over a short period of time.
It should be noted that by revolutionising the traditional firing procedures, those adopted for the use of airborne mortars and anti-tank weapons have reduced the period between landing and the initiation of firing to a new minimum of under a minute. The greater part of the training activity also delivered a notable capability of force projection for the entire Brigade, optimising the possibilities of multi-medial transport through the use of naval shipping, railways, and air-transport.
Attaining validation with Exercise FORWARD CHALLENGE 2004, the Brigade was formally assigned to the Headquarters of the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps -IT (Italy), based at Solbiate Olona, near Varese.
Today the ‘Friuli’ Brigade is made up of four regiments and a Reparto Comando e Supporti Tattici (Headquarters and Tactical Support Unit). The personnel number some 3,100 men and women, and the establishment is around 90% complete, though some gaps in the AVES technical personnel remain to be filled. The troops are drawn solely from ‘volontari in servizio permanente’ (VSP — full-time volunteers) and ‘volontari a ferma breve’ (VFB — short-term volunteers), who must conform to highly demanding recruitment requirements – higher than those for other categories in the Army – in order to ensure a constant quality of excellence.
A detailed examination of the Brigade’s units must begin with the regiment which forms its basis, 66° Reggimento Fanteria Aeromobile ‘Trieste’. Currently commanded by Col Maurizio Morena, this is composed of a Compagnia Comando (headquarters company), three Compagnie Aeromobili (1a, 2a and 3a) (air-mobile companies), a Compagnia Mortal Aeromobile (4a) (air-mobile mortar company), and a Compagnia Controcarri Aeromobile (5a) (air-mobile anti-tank company). This regiment more than any other has had to increase its versatility, becoming ‘multi-role’ and transforming itself into an elite unit. The mechanised infantryman has had to become an ‘aero’ — a multi-skilled soldier trained to operate quickly and flexibly, essential characteristics for air-mobile operations.
The two flying Reggimenti of the ‘Friuli’ Brigade are 5° ‘Rigel’ and 7° ‘Vega’. The 5° Rgt ‘Rigel’. based at Casarsa della Delizia, is commanded by Col Franco Miana. This unit has the most prominent air-mechanisation capability, and is consequently the one most orientated towards combat operations and anti-tank attack. It comprises 27° Cruppo Squadroni ‘Mercurio’, with two squadrons equipped with AB.206C-1 and AB.205 helicopters; and 49° Gruppo Squadroni ‘Capricorno’, with three squadrons, which flies the Agusta A.129 Mangusta and A.109T.
The 7° Rgt ‘Vega’, based at Rimini under the command of Col Primo Piferi, is the main air-mobile unit, and operates most of the transport and support helicopters, as well as the A.129 in its multi-role version. The A.129 with Gil software (capable of operating with 81mm rocket pods and the 12.7mm machine gun pod) is being replaced by the new A.129CBT, characterised by its nose-mounted 20mm cannon and by the ability to launch the Stinger air-to-air missile. The helicopters, which are best suited for escort, scouting, and support, will become the standard for both regiments when deliveries of the 15 aircraft of the second batch are complete and the 45 initial deliveries are reconfigured by Agusta to the CBT standard.
During Exercise FORWARD CHALLENGE 2004 7° ‘Vega’ took delivery of its first two A.129CBT from Agusta, and put them to good use on manoeuvres. In all, the two AVES regiments can deploy around 90 helicopters, comprising 30 A.129s, 15 A.109s, 32 AB.205S. 7 AB.412S and a few AB.206S. a model which is now approaching retirement.
The two AVES regiments’ adoption of the air-mobile mission has brought notable changes in their operations. Not only have these touched on flying crew training and on developing procedures for operations as an autonomous tactical group, but they have also involved the logistical and maintenance components. The requirements of air-mobility (autonomy and field capability) have had an effect on the composition and equipment of the Gruppi di Sostegno (Technical Support Battalions) of each regiment. These possess two-thirds of the regiment’s personnel, and are composed of a Squadrone Comando e Servizi (Headquarters and Services Squadron), Squadrone Trasporti (Transport) and Squadrone Manutenzione (Maintenance). These units work from containers fitted out as workshops, laboratories, and stores to enable maximum deployment flexibility. For maintenance activity in the field, the Brigade uses large tents with floors which can be dismantled, guaranteeing technicians the optimum workplace for carrying out maintenance in the field.
The heli-transport component of the ‘Friuli’ centres on two types of ESC helicopter (Elicotteri per Supporto al Combattimento — Combat Support Helicopters). The most numerous and proven are the AB.205 (designated ESC-3 by the AVES). which can transport up to 13 soldiers and may be armed with the M21 weapons system (a seven-tube Folding-Fin Aerial Rocket (FFAR) launcher and a 7.62mm mini-gun on each side), the M23 (a mobile MG42/59 machine gun on each side) or an M156 (a pod with 19 FFAR rockets on each side).
Despite having been in service for more than 30 years, the AB.205 is still a viable aircraft. Easy to maintain and with updates which include new radios, Night Vision Goggles capability, and a new paint scheme with low optical and infra-red visibility, it remains a useful and valid instrument. Also in service is the more modern AB.412 (ESC-5), which has similar characteristics to the 205, but which offers two engines (greater power, speed, and cargo-carrying capacity), coupled with more modern avionics. For scouting and liaison, medevac, and command post purposes, the Brigade uses the Agusta A.109T — purchased to compensate for a temporary shortage of combat helicopters dedicated to the scout role — which will be retained for the foreseeable future.
Finally, it has, for the present at least, a fourth regiment — the Reggimento ‘Savoia Cavalleria’ (3°), based at Grosseto and commanded by Col Carlo Fortino. This is a standard scouting unit with no air-mobile capability.
Exercise FORWARD CHALLENGE 2004 was the most in-depth exercise recently undertaken by the Brigade, and is worth a brief analysis. On this occasion the Brigade was organised around a Headquarters, a Reparto Comando e Supporti Tattici (RCST — Tactical Support Unit), reinforced by a SIACCON (Sistema Informatizzato di Comando e Controllo — computer command and control system), the Multi-national Support Electronic Warfare Group (MSEWG), the Intelligence and Electronic Warfare section of 33° Rgt. and four gruppi tattici (GT — tactical groups).
On the Road
The first arrivals in Sardinia (elements of the headquarters unit) were in place by the middle of February 2004, and the entire deployment was completed by March 8. Using five ships and six passenger aircraft from Air One company, the Brigade transferred more than 2,000 soldiers, 700 vehicles, and 52 helicopters.
On February 24, activities on the range began with live firing exercises at Perdasdefogu, carried out by the helicopters of 5° Rgt (which had deployed to Perdasdefogu) and 7° Rgt (based on the airstrip at Capo Teulada). Collective activity for the land units began on March 1 at Capo Teulada, with individual and unit level weapons-firing, armoured platoon level manoeuvres, and artillery training.
The first phase of the exercise then moved to a Livex/Firex, with the troops operating on a squad and platoon level. The second phase, from March 12-14, validated the Brigade’s command post, which had been activated and evaluated by personnel from the equivalent department of the ‘Mantova’ Division, which had also deployed to Teulada for the exercise. The third phase, from March 15-19, finally saw activities on Tactical Group level, these reaching a peak in the final phase with 48 hours of continuous operations when all the GT engaged in night time and daytime firing. This was a typical time-scale for a Brigade operation, which has an operational autonomy of two to three days, during which it can engage its maximum firepower potential by rotating the GT.
Activities such as this allow maximum exploitation of the new equipment, and enable the commanders of air-mobile units to develop flexibility and mental elasticity. Prominent among the new developments was the ‘rock drill’, a rudimentary tri-dimensional scale mock-up of the intended area of operations which is put in the Brigade command post in advance of the action to allow commanders to study and prepare strategy, as there is no opportunity to rehearse plans on the ground.
Later operations turned attention to typical missions, such as night-time ‘deep FARP’. This involved identifying a refuelling area around 37-50 miles (60-80km) behind enemy lines, which had to be captured and occupied by the ‘aero’ and by attack helicopters. Then the landing zone was used by the ESC-type helicopters bringing the Pronal refuelling system, complete with fuel bladders. They were followed by the Mangustas, which landed and refuelled in pairs in around three minutes. A FARP can be set up and evacuated again in about 15 minutes, insufficient time for an enemy to react. Finally, there were deep penetration Mangusta operations, which received a great deal of operational assistance from DAO target designators in the attack phase. The information they transmitted prevented any unproductive launch of missiles against targets which had already been hit: in the confusion of combat the sensors in the helicopters have difficulty in identifying these.
The complete validation of the Brigade’s operations does not mean that development of its capacity is complete, nor is the optimisation of its equipment. Certainly, now that Exercise FORWARD CHALLENGE 2004 is over, the most intense and difficult cycle is at an end and the training programme promises to be less intense, but the future of air-mobility will bring its own changes.
The Italian air-mobility speciality has at last become reality, and the ‘Friuli’ Brigade must be recognised as one of the jewels in the Italian Army’s crown. It has already been issued with an instructors’ licence, and in the future is likely to receive an emblem to act as a generic identification for the speciality. The Brigade’s ‘air’ elements deserve recognition for their qualities and capability in achieving this mission.