Addressing the Italian Airlift Gap

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.

Vice Admiral Hervé Bléjean, Deputy Commander Allied Maritime Command (centre), presides over the Change of Command Ceremony of Standing NATO Maritime Group Two, between Commodore Josée Kurtz, Royal Canadian Navy (left), and Rear Admiral Paolo Fantoni, Italian Navy, at the Taranto Naval Base, Italy, 16 December, 2019.
Vice Admiral Hervé Bléjean, Deputy Commander Allied Maritime Command (centre), presides over the Change of Command Ceremony of Standing NATO Maritime Group Two, between Commodore Josée Kurtz, Royal Canadian Navy (left), and Rear Admiral Paolo Fantoni, Italian Navy, at the Taranto Naval Base, Italy, 16 December, 2019.

In 2015, the Italian Ministry of Defence released a White Paper that envisions Italy’s national security as inextricably linked to the Euro-Mediterranean region, broadly defined as the countries with a coastline on the Mediterranean or Black Seas but also extending as far as the Mashreq (such as Syria and Iraq), the Sahel (a band stretching from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east), the Horn of Africa, and the Persian Gulf. Italy has certainly deployed considerable resources to promote stability in this region over the past decade. Rear Admiral Paolo Fantoni of the Italian Navy currently commands Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2), the Italian Navy has actively participated in Operation Ocean Shield off the Horn of Africa as long as in other multilateral maritime operations, and the Italian Army has troops serving in Libya, Niger, Somalia, and elsewhere. 

However, the capacity to project stability into conflict or post-conflict areas over extended periods depends largely on access to strategic and tactical airlift. African Union (AU) peacekeeping efforts, for example, have often fallen short because of a lack of adequate airlift, leaving the AU to depend on assistance from non-members or to simply end missions. Does Italy have sufficient airlift to reach the ambitious goals it has set for itself in the Euro-Mediterranean region? To answer this, it is worthwhile to examine the Italian military’s airlift capacity in comparison to the tactical airlift available to the militaries of other European Union (EU) member states, namely because the majority of Italian military operations in Africa have been conducted either bilaterally or under the auspices of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

Member StateAirlift FleetTotal Airlift Capacity (kg)
AustriaLockheed C-130K (x3)57,000
BelgiumLockheed C-130H (x9)171,000
BulgariaAntonov An-26 (x1), Alenia C-27J (x2)28,500
Czech RepublicCASA C-295 (x4)28,200
DenmarkLockheed C-130J (x4)76,000
SpainLockheed C-130H (x5), Airbus A400M (x3)206,000
FinlandCASA C-295 (x2)14,100
FranceAirbus A310 (x2), Airbus A400M (x12), Lockheed C-130H (x14), Lockheed C-130J (x2), Transall C-160 (x15), CASA CN-235 (x27)1,214,000
GermanyAirbus A310 (x1), Airbus A400M (x28), Lockheed C-130J (x2), Transall C-160 (x42)1,778,800
GreeceLockheed C-130J (x7), Alenia C-27J (x8)225,800
HungaryAntonov An-26 (x3), Airbus A-319 (x2)42,500
ItalyLockheed C-130J (x15), Alenia C-27J (x8)377,800
LithuaniaAlenia C-27J (x3)34,800
NetherlandsLockheed C-130H (x4)76,000
PolandLockheed C-130E (x5), CASA C-295 (x16)207,800
PortugalLockheed C-130H (x4), CASA C-295 (x5)111’250
RomaniaAntonov An-26 (x2), Lockheed C-130H (x3), Alenia C-27J (x7)149,200
SlovakiaAlenia C-27J (x2)23,200
SwedenLockheed C-130H (x5)95,000
Source: Craig Hoyle, “World Airforces 2020“, Flight International, FlightGlobal, 2020.

In addition to these, it is worth noting that several EU member states have ordered additional Airbus A400M Atlas units in an effort to either modernize or expand their respective airlift capabilities, with delivers of 23 for France, 22 for Germany, 17 for Spain, seven for Belgium, and one for Luxembourg expected soon. The Czech Republic has ordered two Embraer C-390 Millennium, and Portugal intends to replace its Lockheed C-130H fleet with six new C-390’s as well. NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) makes available three Boeing C-17 Globemaster III to ten NATO member states (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and the United States) and two Partnership for Peace countries (Finland and Sweden). Finally, NATO’s Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS) has participation from nine NATO member states – Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia – and ensures access to up to five Antonov An-124-100 aircraft, each capable of transporting as much as 120 tons of cargo.  

Also, not all airlift is created equal. For example, as a converted airliner, the A310-330 can only move personnel and pallets, not military vehicles or other outsized cargo, and it lacks a ramp for loading and offloading, limiting it to airports or airbases with the appropriate cargo handling equipment.

Size comparison of military transport aircraft. Top down: Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules, C-130J-30 Super Hercules (extended), Airbus A400M Atlas, Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.
Size comparison of military transport aircraft.
Top-down: Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules,
C-130J-30 Super Hercules (extended), Airbus A400M
Atlas, Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.

In any case, though Italian airlift ranks third among EU members, it only accounts for 8.2% of their total estimated airlift capacity. At only a fraction of German and French capabilities, Italian policymakers and defence planners should consider how to ensure future access to airlift that better matches the role Italy has envisioned for itself in Africa and the Middle East. Under current circumstances, the Italian Air Force would not be able to transport armoured vehicles, such as Freccia infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), to assist in case of renewed hostilities in Mali. In effect, Italy is limited to the EU Training Mission Mali and would need to evacuate its troops if militant Islamists in that country made a push south to the Malian capital of Bamako. 

One option would be to purchase several aircraft to supplement the existing fleet. Italy had previously participated in the Airbus A400M project until then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ended that involvement in late 2001. The A400M, Embraer’s C-390, or another design could certainly meet Italy’s operational needs if a significant investment in additional units were made. However, this may be difficult to achieve, given the political controversy that has surrounded recent Air Force procurement, such as the objections raised by the Five Star Movement (M5S), a partner in the coalition government, to the purchase of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

As an alternative, Italy could consider participation in NATO’s SAC, SALIS, or both. This would allow Italy to upscale its presence in conflict or post-conflict areas as needed. Returning to the hypothetical scenario of a Malian escalation: the Italian Air Force’s existing fleet of C-130J Super Hercules and C-27J Spartan would be sufficient to transport troops and their equipment to Mali for the training mission. Additionally, the NATO SAC or SALIS could be tapped to transport armored vehicles if those same Italian troops came under subsequent threat from insurgents. This would be the lowest cost solution to Italy’s airlift gap and would also offer the highest degree of operational flexibility, notwithstanding the potential for multiple simultaneous demands for NATO SAC flying hours from other program participants. It may also be the most politically feasible solution for the current coalition government. Despite some earlier M5S rumblings about NATO, Italian Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini said in a May 2020 interview that the Alliance “…remains a cornerstone of our security and defence architecture”.

After 20 years, for the first time with the C-130J, the 46 ͣ Pisa Air Brigade of the Italian Air Force again supporting the Italian expedition of Aeneas in October 2019.
After 20 years, for the first time with the C-130J, the 46 ͣ Pisa Air Brigade of the Italian Air Force again supporting the Italian expedition in Antarctica in October 2019.

The Italian example demonstrates the need for policymakers and defence planners everywhere to recognize how airlift, or the lack thereof, can place limitations on stability projection. That relationship must be kept in mind when developing both procurement programs and national defence strategies. If there is a gap between the airlift needed to successfully implement a given country’s defence strategy, then airlift capacity should be improved by procuring additional aircraft, or the strategy should be revised to focus on a closer neighbourhood, into which stability can be projected without additional airlift capacity. With its current capabilities, Italy has envisioned much too ambitious a role for itself in the Euro-Mediterranean, which requires its defence establishment to pursue one of the options described here or to narrow the scope of its involvement in the region to those countries it can successfully reach with sealift, such as Libya.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Italy, Paul Pryce, Security Policy.

4 Responses to Addressing the Italian Airlift Gap

  1. Giovanni Martinelli (via Twitter) says:

    • Thanks for that hint. You are right. However, the member states of the EATC are already included in our table (except for Luxembourg 😉 ). These are partly the same aircraft.

  2. Jorge Martinho says:

    Regarding the list about airlift capacity, Portugal also has C-295 (which is missing on your list), so the total airlift capacity is slightly bigger.

    • Hello Jorge
      Thanks for your comment. You are right. According to the Military Balance 2020, Portugal has 12 CASA C-295, of which five are intended for transport, 5 for maritime surveillance, and 2 for photo-reconnaissance. I now added the 5 CASA C-295 tagged for transportation in the above table.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *