by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
In recent years, as Italy has sought to project security throughout its neighbourhood, the Italian Army has played an increasingly important role. Italy has deployed 470 troops to Niger on a bilateral assistance mission and another 400 to Libya, while a few hundred more are deployed on various NATO and EU operations elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, such as the EU Training Mission (EUTM) Somalia. Beyond this African security push, more than 500 Italian troops participate in NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR), and significant troop deployments to Iraq continue under Operation Prima Parthica, part of the United States-led Operation Inherent Resolve. It is surprising, therefore, that the Italian Army has often lost out in the procurement initiatives of the Italian Armed Forces, with much resources recently going toward force modernization and expansion plans put forward by two of the other three branches – specifically, the Italian Navy and the Italian Air Force.
The need for force modernization in the Italian Army is made all the more apparent when one considers how, as of 2017, Italy had participated in as many overseas military missions as Germany and almost twice as many as Spain, while Italy had deployed significantly more forces than either of those two countries. The delay in Army procurement might well owe to domestic political considerations: even as the Italian Army was deployed on many of the aforementioned missions, the Italian government awarded €5.4 billion to Fincantieri and Leonardo (formerly Finmeccanica), both Italian defence manufacturers, to construct a new Logistic Support Ship (Vulcan-class), seven Multipurpose Offshore Patrol Ships (Paolo Thaon di Revel-class) with four more in option and one Landing Helicopter Dock (Trieste) for the Navy. This occurred when Italy’s then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was struggling with an ever more fractious coalition government and a deep economic recession. Shipbuilding might well have been seen as an economic stimulus.
However, in January 2020, the signing of several contracts by the Secretariat General of Defence and National Arms Directorate (SGD/NAD) has secured a path forward for Army modernization. There will also undoubtedly be the political will necessary to see these contracts through, given the prominent role the Italian Army has played in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, as troops were deployed to enforce curfews in the Lombardy region in March 2020, for example. These contracts include an order of 20,000 Individual Combat Systems (ICS’s) under the “Safe Soldier” initiative, an Italian offshoot of the US-led Future Soldier program. These ICS’s include new body armour, a command and control (C2) system, and a lightweight individual pocket radio (IPR), the sum of which is intended to improve the survivability of the Italian soldier and enhance small unit coordination.
Beyond this, the Italian Army has acquired 126 Spike anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) launchers from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, expected to enter service in 2021, and an additional 30 Freccia infantry fighting vehicles (IFV’s). The Iveco–Oto Melara Consortium, another Italian defence manufacturer, has been contracted to provide 136 new Centauro II tank destroyers. The Skyguard medium-range air defence system is being phased out by 2021, in favour of the Grifo system and the Common Anti-air Modular Missile Extended Range (CAMM-ER), a single-stage supersonic missile. Of particular importance, Leonardo has been awarded €337 million to develop and supply 15 Light Utility Helicopters, based on the AgustaWestland AW169, with the possibility to order a further 35 in the near future. This will serve to update the Italian Army’s operational airlift capabilities, which depend on a fleet of domestic variants on the Bell 205, 212, and 412 helicopters.
The Italian Army will also benefit from the cancellation, announced in July 2019, of the 2013 reforms. Included within these reforms would have been the consolidation of all training regiments, centres, and schools under the newly established Army Formation, Specialization, and Doctrine Command (COMFORDOT) in Rome. This could have undermined unique capabilities afforded to the Italian Army by its specialized and relatively independent training centres, such as the Alpine Training Centre in Aosta and the Parachuting Training Centre in Pisa, by moving resources to Rome or otherwise centralizing the development of training curriculum to institutions lacking in traditions or formal experience.
However, Italian policymakers should revisit the question of reforms, albeit through a different lens than that pursued in 2013. For example, Italy’s Ministry of Defence released a White Paper in 2015 that envisions a series of concentric circles into which Italy should project security – respectively, the Euro-Atlantic region, the Euro-Mediterranean region, and the “global system” – and then articulates a series of steps that the Italian defence establishment might pursue to enhance the effectiveness of this security projection, including improvements to recruitment and retention in the Armed Forces, changes to logistics management, and higher investments in cyber-security. It also calls for a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) to be conducted within six months of the White Paper’s release, though there is no indication that the SDR was conducted. To do so would afford a valuable opportunity to discuss what the Italian Army’s role should be in the future. Should it be primarily used in an expeditionary capacity, working to stabilize potential conflict areas, or should it be concentrated on the defence of a shared European security space against the perceived threat of Russian aggression? Alternatively, should the Italian Army be primarily concerned, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its heavy toll on Italy, with an emergency response? The answers to these questions, whatever they may be, would help to ensure that future procurement initiatives and reforms help to equip the Army for that mission.
The procurement of new equipment underway, as part of the “Safe Soldier” system, is a positive step in modernizing the Italian Army. As a valuable tool of Italian foreign and security policy, more than carrying its weight despite the lack of a clear strategic vision, it deserves more attention from policymakers.