Italian Flair

Dr Riccardo Niccoli reviews the structure, aircraft and helicopter types of the Italian Navy Air Force — an increasingly hi-tech amphibious force.

IN THE aftermath of World War Two, and during the years of the Cold War, the Marina Militare Italiana (MMI — Italian Navy) was structured and organised to operate in the Mediterranean theatre, with Soviet submarines as its primary opponent. The helicopter held huge potential as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weapon system, and in 1956 the Italian Navy purchased its first helicopters — three Agusta-Bell AB-47Cs. In subsequent years the new service gained momentum, and further helicopters arrived, more AB-47G/G-2s, then AB-47J/J-3s (already suitable for the ASW mission), Sikorsky SH-34G/J, and AB-204AS. Then came the modern helicopters which remain in service today — the AB-212ASW, the SH-3D and, more recently, the EH-101. For many years the Marina Militare sought to build up a fixed-wing fighter force of its own, to gain autonomy and end its dependence on Italian Air Force assets to defend the fleet and support the marines in amphibious operations. Thanks to a law passed in 1989, the Navy was finally allowed to operate its own aircraft, resuming what had been common practice between 1913 and 1937. It acquired a squadron of AV-8B+ Harriers, which entered service in 1991.


Today, the Forze Aeree della Marina (Italian Navy Air Force) is a modem, well-proven force able to carry out air defence, interdiction, close air support, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, heli-assault, search and rescue, combat search and rescue, transport, and support to special forces from land bases, the aircraft carrier Garibaldi, or from three assault ships.

Its headquarters is at the Italian Navy General Staff in Rome. The commander of the force is usually a Rear Admiral with a career in naval aviation, either in helicopters or fighters. He has a double commitment — he reports to the Commander of the Fleet, and is also Chief of the 6th Branch (Aircraft) of the General Staff, reporting to the Vice-Chief of Staff of the Navy. This allows him to control operational activity, and oversee study, development and procurement activities.

This double commitment, introduced in January 2000, sought to focus activity more on the procurement products and to reduce the number of staff. The Commander is now the Force Provider of all air assets for all the Navy Commands. Evidence from the last six years appears to show that this command organisation works better than the one in place before 2000. Commander Forze Aeree controls some 2,200 personnel and manages a considerable force of about 80 helicopters and 20 aircraft, divided between one fighter squadron, five helicopter squadrons, one aircraft flight, and one test unit, based at one Naval Air Station (MARISTAER) and two Naval Helicopter Stations (MARISTAELI). For carrier-borne operations, the Navy has Giuseppe Garibaldi, a 13,000-ton aircraft carrier, and three assault ships, San Giusto, San Giorgio, and Son Marco (LPDs). A second 26,000-ton carrier, the Confe di Cavour, is expected to join the fleet in 2008.

Fighter Force

The fighter force comprises a single squadron, the Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati (GRUPAER — aircraft carrier squadron) based at MARISTAER Grottaglie, near Taranto.

GRUPAER operates 15 (out of 16 delivered) AV-8B+ Harrier Ms, delivered between April 1994 — November 1997. The first three aircraft were built by Boeing, delivered to MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, and used by Marine Attack Training Squadron 203 (VMAT-203) for training.

Alenia built the other 13 aircraft under licence in Italy. One, MM7210/’1-10′, was badly damaged on landing at Grottaglie in March 2002, and was written off. Two TAV-8Bs are also used for squadron training: these were delivered to Cherry Point in June 1991 and officially handed over on August 23, landing on the Garibaldi at Norfolk, Virginia.

GRUPAER is tasked to perform air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The normal training activity includes air combat, combat air patrol, interception, close air support, naval strike, and battlefield air interdiction. Italian Harriers are equipped with the 25mm GAU-12 cannon, and can carry a variety of weapons: Mk82 and Mk83 slick and retarded general-purpose bombs, LAU rocket pods, AGM-65F Maverick air-to-ground missiles, 5001b (227kg) GBU-12 and 1,0001b (454kg) GBU-16 laser-guided bombs. In 2001, before Operation Enduring Freedom, the Harriers carried the Northrop/Rafael AN/AAQ-28 Litening II laser designation pod, enabling them to make autonomous precision strikes. Over the period 2003-2005, the entire Harrier II Plus fleet underwent a modernisation programme which involved replacing the mission computer and the stores management system, installing new software, and modifying the wing pylons and fuselage wirings. The upgrade expanded the Harrier’s weapon arsenal with AIM-120B AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles), JDAM and JSOW capability. GRUPAER took part in Operations Alba Neo (Albania 1997), Allied Force (Kosovo 1999), Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2001) and Leonte (Lebanon 2006). The F-35B Short Take Off Vertical Landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter is due to replace the AV-8B+: delivery of the first of 24 aircraft is expected in the second half of the next decade.


The most modern and capable helicopter in use with the Italian Navy is the EH-101, flown by the 1° Gruppo Elicotteri (GRUPELICOT 1 — 1st Helicopter Squadron) at Luni, near the naval base of La Spezia, in the upper Tyrrhenian Sea.

In 1995 the Navy signed a contract for 16 helicopters, with an option for eight more. The official delivery of the first EH-101 to the Navy (MM84180/’2-01′) took place at the AgustaWestland Vergiate plant on December 6, 1999, and the acceptance flight started the following December. The Operational Test and Evaluation phase began on March 16, 2001, at Luni, at the Centra Sperimentale Aeromarittimo (CSA, Sea-Air Test Centre), using helicopters MM84181/’2-02′ and MM84182/’2-03′.

GRUPELICOT 1 received its first operational helicopter in March 2002, whilst continuing to carry out Operational Test and Evolution activity in conjunction with the CSA and proceeding with the training of the first crews. The first eight helicopters were configured for ASW/ASuW (Anti-Submarine Warfare/Anti-Surface Warfare), equipped with an Eliradar MM/APS-784 radar system, Helicopter Long Range Active Sonar (HELRAS), SL/ALR-735V3 Electronic Support Measures from Elettronica, five Have Quick 2 radios, a Unk 11 data-link system, a Forward Looking Infra-Red system by Galiflir (later replaced by the Star Satire II) and an ECDS-2 self-defence suite.

Armament comprises Mk46 and MU90 torpedoes and Marte Mk2/S missiles. The next four EH-101s were configured as Airborne Early Warning (AEW) platforms for command and control, fleet protection, and fighter control.

The main sensor on the AEW variant is the HEW-784 radar, a version of the APS-784 equipped with upgraded software and a larger antenna. AgustaWestland used EH-101 MM84188/’2-09′ for test and integration trials, the other three being delivered to the Italian Navy without the AEW radar system. Once test and integration is complete, each helicopter will be retrofitted: this is expected to be complete by late 2007.

The final four helicopters were utility versions dedicated to tactical transport fitted with a rear cargo ramp, but have no ASW, ESM or anti-shipping systems. EH-101 MM81492/’2-13′ was delivered to GRUPELICOT 1 in July 2004, and the fourth utility version, MM81495/’2-16′, one year later. MM81495 is currently in the United States as Test Vehicle for the VH-71 Presidential helicopter programme. It arrived at Lockheed-Martin’s Owego facility on June 10, 2005, and will be returned to the Italian Navy in the future.

All four utility variants are used in support of the Navy Special Forces (COMSUBIN) and the Italian Marines’ San Marco Regiment. The first of four advanced utility variants (part of the eight-aircraft option), MM82633/’2-18′, was delivered to GRUPELICOT 1 on May 25, 2006, and deliveries should be complete by the end of this year. The advanced utility version is designated ASH (Amphibious Assault Helicopters) for the Combat Search And Rescue role to support Special Forces. Mission equipment includes a fast roping system, weather/navigation radar, and provision for an in-flight refuelling probe. EH-101ASHs feature a satellite communications system, enhanced IFF (Identification Friend or Foe), Satire II FLIR, advanced self-defence suite (featuring radar, missile and laser warning systems).

Armament for the Combat Search and Rescue role includes two 12.7mm machine guns, one on the rear ramp and one on the starboard cargo door, plus two 7.62mm machine guns fitted in the side windows.

The Italian Navy has yet to decide on the configuration of the remaining four EH-101s of the eight-aircraft option.

The entire EH-101 fleet is currently based at Luni with GRUPELICOT 1, mainly for training, logistic and support reasons. In the future, part of the fleet may be based at Grottaglie to support the Harrier II squadron with HEW models, and the San Marco Regiment with UTY models. It is unclear whether these helicopters will be grouped into a new squadron, or if a detachment of GRUPELICOT 1 will be created.

Sea Kings

The Navy has bought the EH-101 to replace a fleet of 36 SH-3D Sea Kings flown by GRUPELICOT 1, based at Luni (which retired its last SH-3D in December 2003), GRUPELICOT 4 at Grottaglie and GRUPELICOT 3 at Catania. GRUPELICOT 4 operates six SH-3Ds configured as a heli-assault version capable of carrying 16 troops, supporting amphibious operations with the San Marco Regiment: the SH-3D first entered service in December 1968.

All six Sea Kings have been modified. ASW/ASuW equipment and the radar have been removed, and large filters on the engine air intakes, a FLIR system, Night Vision Goggles, Trim Pack GPS navigation system, an ARS-700 Personnel Locator System, a SRT-651 communications suite, an advanced self-defence suite, and armoured protection for the crew, have all been fitted. For fire support, the SH-3D can be fitted with 7.62mm MG42/MG59 machine-guns on side doors.

If needed, the heli-assault variant can be converted back to ASW/ASuW configuration. This model was assigned to the NLA (Nucleo Lotta Anfibia, or Amphibious Combat Flight) as from 1994. Today the unit has been re-structured as Reparto Eliassalto (Heli-assault Unit), within GRUPELICOT 4.

EH-101 deliveries are nearly complete, but a number of SH-3Ds remain in use: the final date for retirement is currently set at 2013. Unless further funding is provided, the last heli-assault models with GRUPELICOT 4 could be retired at an earlier date.

Legacy Choppers

The other legacy helicopter still in service is the Agusta-Bell AB212, the first examples of which entered service in 1976. The Italian Navy purchased 59 AB212s to use for the ASW mission on frigates and cruisers, and flew four different models. The basic ASW version was equipped with SMA APS-705A radar, AQS-1 3 sonar and armed with Mk44, Mk46 and A-244 torpedoes. Other models feature specific modifications. Four were modified to the AB212GE (Guerra Elettronica, or Electronic Warfare) version, featuring an Elettronica ECM/ELINT suite called ‘Gufo’ (Owl) which replaced the ASW systems of the baseline AB212. One AB212GE has been retired, and the other three will follow by 2007-2008, as the EW mission is now performed far more effectively by the EH-101.

A third model, configured for heli-assault, entered service in support of the San Marco Regiment at the beginning of the 1990s after the NLA was established. Stripped of ASW equipment, it is fitted with cockpit armour, NVG, Trim Pack GPS navigation system, MG42/MG59 machine guns fitted on the side doors, and the HL19-70 system. This comprises two 2.75-inch (70mm) rocket pods with 19 rockets each. Following service entry, 12.7mm machine gun pods and a self-defence suite were added.

The fourth version of the AB212 has no designation, and serves as a transport version, stripped of all equipment and used only for personnel or supply transport.

Today more than 40 AB212s remain in service with GRUPELICOT 2 at Catania (mainly for conversion and training activity), GRUPELICOT 5 at Luni (for ASW/ASuW missions), and GRUPELICOT 4 at Grottaglie (either ASW/ASuW, GE or heli-assault versions). Current plans call for the last heli-assault versions to be retired by 2015.

The successor to the AB212 is the NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) version of the NH Industries NH-90, a dedicated naval version whose development has been specifically assigned to AgustaWestland because of the company’s expertise in naval warfare helicopters.

In June 2000, nations involved in the NH programme signed a contract for the procurement phase. The Italian Navy has committed to receive 46 NH90 NFH models for ASW/ASuW missions. Another ten NH90 TTH (Tactical Transport Helicopter) variants will be used for transport, SAR, CSAR, and heli-assault.

The Italian P5 prototype, dedicated to the development of NH90 NFH mission equipment, first flew in November 1999, and has frequently been operated in conjunction with the Italian Navy — and especially with the CSA — for test and development trials. After some delay, two series machines (ITN 01 and ITN 02) are under trials. However, the first delivery of an NH90 to the Italian Navy is expected in 2008, to GRUPELICOT 5.

Fixed Wing

The Italian Navy flies three Piaggio Aero P.I 80 Avanti twin turboprop aircraft, based at the Sezione Aerea MMI (Navy Aviation Flight) at Pratica di Mare AB outside Rome. In service since 2001, they are used for VIP transport and long-range liaison missions. The first two aircraft were flown on loan from the Italian Air Force until 2004. On April 8 that year the Navy took delivery of its own first P.I 80, followed by a second the same year, and the third in March 2005. Both loaned aircraft were returned to the Air Force. This third aircraft has been modified to house — if needed — an EO/IR payload under the fuselage near the fin, allowing it to carry out surveillance missions. The Navy P.I 80s are embedded in the fleet of 15 aircraft operated by 71° Gruppo of the Italian Air Force, and are operated in pool system.

Piaggio Aero at Pratica di Mare carries out P. 180 maintenance under a dedicated contract covering the needs of the Air Force, Army, Navy and other State operators of the type. A single AgustaWestland A.109E Power, operated for VIP transport under a leasing contract with AgustaWestland, was delivered in 2001 and based at MARISTAELI Luni. It has no military serial assigned, flying in the civilian registration l-VRGT and the Navy code ‘5-01’.

Fixed Wing Component

The Aviazione della Marina (Navy Aviation) is an Italian Air Force fixed-wing component dedicated to ASW and MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) missions, using Breguet BR.1150 Atlantic aircraft grouped under 41° Stormo, based at Sigonella, Sicily. Owned and managed by the Air Force, their operation is controlled by the Navy, and a mix of Air Force-Navy personnel form the aircrew and maintenance teams.

Eighteen Atlantics were delivered between 1972 and 1974 and upgraded under the ALCO programme from 1988-1993. They are equipped with a Thomson-CSF Iguane search radar, an ST-02 ESM system, a Magnetic Anomaly Detector, and an AQS-902 sonobouy data management system.

The Atlantic fleet has been reduced in number as funds are awaited to buy a new MPA aircraft. In 2005, it was rumoured that the Italian Navy was to order three Alenia ATR-42MP maritime patrol aircraft for surveillance missions as a stopgap measure before the service entry of the MPA. However, at present, no orders have been signed.

Small but Focused

The Forze Aeree della Marina (Italian Navy Air Force) is a small division of the Italian military with less than 2,500 personnel assigned. Its fleet of approximately 100 helicopters and aircraft are some of the most capable platforms found in the inventories of other European Navies. As an amphibious force, it can be mobilised quickly and deployed around the world. A well-proven force, it is capable of undertaking a variety of missions, from assault ships, an aircraft carrier and land bases. A second carrier is due to enter service in 2008, and the NH90 helicopter will follow, both adding further capability to Italy’s hi-tech Navy.

Like this post? Please share to your friends: