Skip to comments.A tale of two Harriers: How Italy held on to carrier strike
Posted on 10/06/2012 2:22:19 AM PDT by sukhoi-30mki
A tale of two Harriers: How Italy held on to carrier strike
18 September 2012
Defence blogger Gabriele Molinelli explores the different approaches to defence that left financially troubled Italy with carrier strike capability while the UK faces nearly a decade without
On 26 October 2011, the Italian Navy's 'Embarked Aircraft Group', GRUPAER, celebrated its first 20 years. The pilots of the squadron could proudly celebrate in front of their Harriers, having operated to great effect over Libya from the aircraft carrier Garibaldi. They flew 33 per cent of Italy's war sorties, and 53 per cent of the land attack missions, dropping 160 guided bombs in the process.
In the UK, their colleagues from Joint Force Harrier had nothing to celebrate. Their aircraft and the ship from which they would have had to fly from were both already gone, victims of 2010's Strategic Defence and Security review. So why the differences between the two nations?
Italy is not a safe haven, untouched by the economic crisis. Quite the opposite, it has been seen as one of the countries most at risk of imitating Greece in recent years. Added to this, Italy is a country that spends little on defence and experiences a much higher level of internal hostility to all kinds of military spending, with large parts of the Italian population and politics considerably less supportive than the British people towards the armed forces.
Italy has also had its own defence review, and its own cuts to the armed forces; in the next few years the military will shrink from some 180,000 uniformed personnel, supplemented by 30,000 civil servants, to a 150,000-man force with 20,000 civilians.
Even so, Italian personnel are deployed in Afghanistan and Lebanon and the country was able to participate in Libya. Even though it only began strike missions on 25 July 2011, Italy proved capable of hitting hundreds of targets, fired around 30 Storm Shadow missiles and sent a carrier and its complement of Harriers, while also providing the only non-American specialized SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) capability. The Italian defence review did not create any critical new gaps in capability either - Italy did not sacrifice its maritime patrol aircraft, nor its naval aviation, or amphibious vessels.
There are several reasons behind the different outcomes. In Italy, year after year, the unwillingness to increase the defence budget is partially balanced by the Ministero per lo Sviluppo Economico (MiSE - Ministry for Economic Development) pouring money into the procurement of equipment that comes, entirely or in large part, from the Italian defence industry. The benefit to the industrial complex is such that it is considered fair and normal to have the MiSE pour money into "national" defence programmes; the aircraft carrier Cavour, the Typhoon, the FREMM frigates and the Freccia 8x8 armored vehicles all continue largely thanks to MiSE funding. In the UK, there wasn't even the will to have the Department for International Development, which is to see a 35 per cent budget boost by 2015, provide a paltry 12 million pounds a year in order to keep RFA Largs Bay in service, despite the success that the ship had in delivering aid to Haiti after the earthquake.
In the case of Harrier, an important difference is that the Italian Harriers are of the AV8B+ type, and thus are fully multirole: they have radar, anti-air missiles and guided weapons for strike missions. The Harrier GR9 notoriously had no radar and no AMRAAM - those capabilities were lost years ago with the Sea Harrier. The multirole capability of the AV8B+ makes it easier for the Navy to argue for their retention.
Another crucial difference is that the Italian Harrier squadron is under full navy control thanks to a law approved on 26 January 1989 specifically to allow the Navy to add a fixed wing jet capability "for air defence of the fleet and the support to naval and amphibious operations". The Royal Navy lost control of its Harriers with the formation of the Joint Force with the RAF, a measure which was part of the Labour defence review in 1998 and that brought the Harriers under RAF Group 1 command. The Navy effectively lost control of them and of their fate at that moment. Just a decade later, in 2008, the First Sea Lord had to threaten resignation to stop the RAF from withdrawing the Harrier force, but by 2010 it was a done deal.
Significantly, the Italian Navy is fighting hard to avoid walking down the same path. The defence review decided that Italy will only order 90 F-35s, down from 131 once planned. The navy won't get the 22 F35-B it had hoped for, but just 15, with 15 more going to the air force, which had once hoped for 40. It is anticipated that the two squadrons will be based on in Grottaglie, current home of the navy's Harriers. There will be collaboration, but the air force call for a "joint force" was rebutted, with the Navy and ministers agreeing that the British experience is a good example of what not to do. The navy squadron will continue to cover the unique requirement for air support at sea and will be under full naval control. Airframes will be shared if and as necessary to ensure that the Cavour carrier can get its full complement of 14.
Finally, the decisive difference is political and strategic. Successive Italian governments have agreed that the armed forces buy Italy respect and political influence. Contributions to multinational efforts are seen as a major element in Italy's foreign policy. As a consequence, the armed forces' strategy has been focused on expeditionary operations, with the navy to the fore thanks to the new carrier Cavour and its larger, more capable future complement of F35Bs and plans for much more capable amphibious forces. Even in a time of cuts, attention was paid to go ahead as regularly as possible with the necessary investments.
In the UK, the focus on expeditionary operations is also proudly declared, but it remains hard to see where the expeditionary focus is when the amphibious fleet is reduced; the only real deployable, independent air element available is removed, tying any future operation to the availability of foreign bases and overflight permissions; and the maritime patrol aircraft are also gone, making it much more risky to send the fleet into hostile waters. It is worth noting that the navy is also crucial to operations that aren't strictly naval campaigns; it was thanks to 60 UK-chartered merchant ships and 4 RFA Ro-Ro vessels that over 90 per cent of the equipment the UK used in Iraq in 2003 reached the theatre of war, under Royal Navy escort due to maritime terrorism fears.
In Italy, despite the many problems that exist, the strategy chosen has been followed by facts. In the UK, the stated strategy has quickly been contradicted by the measures implemented.
Gabriele Molinelli is the author of the UK Armed Forces Commentary blog
Great article. Thanks.