How to fix the Italian Armed Forces / Forze armate italiane

This is one more part of my de facto series of super arrogant smart-arse posts on how to improve armed forces relevant for NATO's defence in Europe.

Military spending in Europe according to IISS "The Military Balance 2016":
Circles represent volume, colours represent increase 2014-2015
This critique will exclude the Carabinieri and the Guardia di Finanzia, paramilitary forces that are of marginal relevance for alliance defence.

Status quo critique

The Italian Navy (Marina Militare) is weirdly large. It intends to soon have two aircraft carriers, 14 major surface combatants and 8 submarines.

The Mediterranean Sea is the relevant maritime theatre for Italian national security, and the allied NATO and EU countries offer so many opportunities for basing air power on land that all hostile naval surface forces could be annihilated by land-based air power with ease, even without employment of tanker aircraft.

There is a small submarine threat by non-allied Mediterranean countries:
4, soon six Algerian Kilo submarines
5, soon 6 Israeli submarines
4 old + 4 outright obsolete Egyptian submarines
Morocco in talks to buy Russian submarines

This threat is dwarfed by what the alliance could muster, and in the event of a conflict the vast majority of the non-Israeli submarines wouldn't be in a really operational condition and at sea. Land-based air power could take out replenishment ships, submarines in harbours, harbour facilities and on top of that deploy naval mines in front of harbours. 
The complete submarine threat in an incredibly unlikely event of warfare against another Mediterranean power or two would thus likely amount to a mere one or two submarine patrols.

The Russian Black Sea fleet can thus be considered the real ASW bogeyman. Its surface ships could be wiped out with land based air power as was mentioned before, but its six conventional submarines (1970's technology) could participate in a conflict in the Mediterranean Sea IF they were there already at the beginning of the conflict. Them trying to slip through the Bosporus during a conflict would be an issue for the Turkish armed forces (NATO allies), not for the Italian ones. Yet again, it would be unreasonable to expect more than 2/3 of these submarines to patrol the Med in a combat-ready condition in such a conflict, and they for sure couldn't replenish their munitions during a war. Even those four threat submarines are highly unlikely, for most if not all of them would probably be held back in the Black Sea.

Thus the entirety of naval threats that would need to be countered by the Italian navy TOGETHER with the Greek navy AND the Spanish navy AND whatever else the NATO or EU muster in the Mediterranean Sea would be about four conventional 1970's technology submarines with a total of about 72 torpedoes and missiles. This would enable about 50 sinkings of civilian ships if all four submarines were not disturbed on their patrol by any NATO or EU navy. Let's assume an average value of the targeted ships of EUR 100 million*; the assets to save in the event of war amount to about EUR 5 billion only.

In other words; there's no rational defence policy reason for spending billions of Euros every year on Italian (or Greek, Spanish) naval forces because there's no respective threat to deter or defeat. Whatever reasons there are for the current naval spending, they are either great power gaming 'reasons' or even worse 'reasons' (such as thought-free inertia).

This is something that hardly anyone seems to think of any more; defence makes no sense if it's more expensive than to not defend. It sure makes no sense to spend more on defence annually than the most you might possibly save from destruction in the event of war.
That's equivalent to paying 100 € per year to rent a safe deposit box to secure valuables worth 30 €.

The Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare) had a bad tradition of having terrible fighters and buying too many light and low combat value aircraft of domestic production. The current equipment of the Italian Air Force looks unusually good compared to the service's Cold War history, though. 

F-35, Typhoon and Tornado ECR aircraft look relevant and mostly useful (though each type has its own issues and isn't anywhere near perfection). The Tornado IDS could still be somewhat usable as well, at least in the maritime domain. A big issue with the Italian air power is the lack of proper missiles for anti-ship strikes (other than anti-radar missiles and bombs). The only such missiles in service are for use by naval helicopters (Marte series). Storm Shadow (a land attack cruise missile) might have an anti-ship mode, but it is likely not as effective as dedicated anti-ship missiles are in this role. Italian land-based air power could dominate the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, but apparently it cannot.

The diversity of non-combat aircraft is rather higher than could be justified as necessary and lots of light combat aircraft with negligible utility for alliance defence are leeching funding.

These were comments about the aircraft; other topics that determine military value of combat aviation are training, readiness (especially the spare parts situation and availability of qualified crews) and munition stocks. I have no in-depth knowledge about these areas in regard to Italy, but superficial info that I picked up hinted at a hollowed-out force, with the Aeronautica Militare only deserving poor scores in all of these areas.

It should be noted that Italy possesses six of the most modern and most capable area air defence batteries, a French design (SAMP/T). To be accurate; these batteries are part of the army, not of the air force. They belong to the air war domain, though.

The Italian Army (Esercito Italiano) has a bad tradition of having mostly 2nd rate equipment. They do have an appreciation for wheeled AFVs comparable to the French army, with the Centauro vehicle (with a 105 mm tank gun) as the most famous such AFV.

They have nine combat brigades, one of which lacks an organic artillery battalion (the one on Sardinia). Eight brigades are subordinated to three divisions, the 9th being the airborne brigade. A special forces brigade holds two more light infantry (para) "regiments" and there's a marines "regiment" that's effectively an infantry battalion that may be useful for forced river crossings at least.

Two of the mechanised brigades are on islands; Sicily and Sardinia. This adds additional days to their deployment lag in the event of alliance defence elsewhere.**
The recent reorganisation was supposed to lead to what I would call two tank brigades, two brigades with wheeled AFVs and SPGs, four brigades with wheeled AFVs and towed artillery and one light airborne brigade. This means only two brigades are of the kind that one would accept to send against Russian army combat brigades, whereas the other seven brigades could be sent on  raids (using the wheeled AFVs) or used for combat in urban, swampy or woodland areas (the airborne brigade). That's the theory judging by the nominal TO&E strengths.

I won't go into great detail criticising the equipment of the Italian army.
The Ariete main battle tank design is good enough to enable the crews to do their job if their training and their employment by superiors are (were) fine. There are a few thousand modern anti-tank missiles (Spike family) in service, which I consider to be not trustworthy in face of appropriate countermeasures. Many of these missiles are in use with attack helicopters that would have marginal survivability against Russian battlefield air defences.
Most of the Italian army equipment is typical for Western European land forces.

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Suggestions for change

(1) Navy
The navy is of marginal utility in my opinion. Having a long coastline does not necessarily mean that you need a large navy. Nor does the existence of naval equipment manufacturers in your country justify a large navy.

Some mine hunting capability is advisable, and paramilitary institutions can handle the maritime surveillance, policing and SAR affairs. Mine hunters are typically of about the same size and speed as offshore patrol vessels, so mine hunting could be done by a paramilitary establishment as well (with the personnel designated to become combatants in the event of war) instead of having separate ships for maritime policing and mine hunting. The current inventory of mine countermeasure ships is old and about to be retired, though.

It's not politically feasible to cut all that's unnecessary from the Italian Navy, of course. Likely almost everyone in Italy would want to keep a certain minimum for retaining naval competence at the very least.
It might be feasible to change the order for 15 F-35B (STOVL version with poor range) to F-35As for the air force. The ship inventory could be thinned out by mothballing, selling or scrapping old ships and not ordering any new ones.
  • Mothball the unnecessary light aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi ASAP.
  • LHA "Trieste" wasn't even laid down yet
  • LSS "Vulcano" isn't in an advanced construction stage.
  • The "PPA" patrol ship class of seven units, had but one been laid down a few weeks ago only
It might be possible to cancel these orders, but this depends on the contract details. The dire fiscal situation should offer a political opportunity and motivation to enact such cuts.

(2) Air Force

Cut the air force to what can be maintained with good training, high material and personnel-wise readiness and adequate munitions stocks. This may be as few as 60-80 combat aircraft. I advise against ordering any additional combat aircraft in the next years.
60 frequently updated combat aircraft with pilots who fly 300 hours/year would be more valuable than 200+ combat aircraft of 80's and 90's technology with pilots who fly less than 165 hours/year would be.
  • Sell or mothball the low value light attack aircraft (AMX). Third World customers might be found for this if the price is right.
  • Get rid of the air show unit (Frecce Tricolori).
  • Reduce the oversized fleet of support aircraft.
  • Transfer the ASMP/T area air defence batteries to the air force.
  • The Tornado ECR unit may not maintain its utility in the SEAD role for long, but it could specialise in naval strike with the addition of the NSM/JSM munition (about 100 missiles should be in stock) and much training in anti-ship strike synchronisation and aerial refuelling. A couple of the least worn-out Tornado IDS could be retained in the same unit for practice.
  • Ensure that the air force is actually deployable within European NATO; air defence batteries and combat aviation units should be able to deploy by long distances (such as to Crete, Poland, Romania or Hungary) within a few days. This may rest on the use of civilian transport aircraft and does not necessitate a large transport aircraft fleet.
  • Participate in NATO and European schemes for joint support aircraft (MPA, EW, tankers, transports, trainers, AEW) when there are opportunities. 

(3) Army

It makes little sense to have mechanised brigades on Sardinia and Sicily. There's hardly any threat of invasion and these forces cannot be deployed to allies under attack as quickly as forces in continental Italy.
I propose thus to establish militia forces on both Sardinia and Sicily that specialise on the defence of their island against invasion by airborne (lightly mechanised) forces, on quickly making harbours and airports unusable when ordered, on airbase security, coast observation and natural disaster responses. They need no better than towed artillery and no powerful anti-tank assets.

A single brigade with wheeled AFVs (including wheeled SPGs) could serve as a continental Italy quick response force with similar missions. It could be augmented by a regiment in Rome that protects the government in the event of crisis or conflict. Both formations could be partially active and partially composed of reservists or 'weekend warriors'.

Finally, a small corps with four to six well-funded mechanised brigades with enough tank transporters for quick long-range road marches and high readiness for conventional high end land warfare should exist, preferably based in Northern Italy with frequent road marches of each one complete brigade to exercises in Poland and Romania.
The army should aspire for such a high readiness that this corps would be battle-ready in Poland or Romania within two weeks, arriving with 80-90% of nominal strength in personnel and equipment as well as with three combat days worth of munitions (munitions for several more days should be transported to a logistical hub by civilian vehicles).

This corps should be brought up to high quality in training and doctrine, capable of both very high tempo mobile warfare in offence (especially raids, hasty attacks, river crossings) and defence (especially delaying actions) as well as relatively slow-moving offence (such as systematic reduction of pockets and clearing of settlements) and defence (such as defence in woodland, defence against river crossings).

Neither 105 mm tank guns (as on Centauro) nor the currently used ATGMs (including Spike models) should be considered as trustworthy anti-tank assets against whatever threat dares to attack NATO/EU. As usual, I recommend to have a look at HVMs like the CKEM project because the 120 mm L/44 tank guns of the Arietes shouldn't be the only somewhat trustworthy AT assets.***
_ _ _ _ _

I was guided by a near-absence of plausible threats in the Mediterranean region and a similar assumption as for Germany:
Air and land power should be maintained with the intention of preventing war by deterrence and in the case of failure achieve a quick white peace by quick deployment and battlefield success. The idea is that if a nation that's surrounded by friendly nations and impotent nations defends its allies somewhere else on the same continent it doesn't need to defend itself at home. The recommended defences at home were thus the bare minimum, meant against airborne coup de mains rather than invasion by land.

Most appalling is the navy, which has such a small antisubmarine capability that it would hardly find any of the very few threat subs in the large Mediterranean Sea during wartime. It's unnecessary against surface threats. There's very little actual defence utility in that navy. I disregard the possibility that Italian naval assets might be employed in the Atlantic Ocean (where it would be of little utility as well) because Italy with its location and relatively large readiness to spend on the military (compared to smaller allies such as Croatia, for example) should be a capable early responder to aggressions in Eastern Europe, similar to Germany. This leads to a preference for quickly deployable land power over naval power that can be substituted for by American, British, Canadian and French naval power. Allied air power is also more quickly deployable over long distances than allied land power.

Overall I suppose Italy could actually cut its military spending and still be a more valuable alliance member than presently.


*: This is likely much too high unless one counts the cargo and the lives of the crews as well; unctad.org/en/Docs/rmt2010_en.pdf page 56
**: No bridge connects Sicily with the continent, and the bridge project for changing this was cancelled years ago.
***: They would likely fail to penetrate modernised Russian MBTs or Armata MBTs from the frontal 60° arc anyway, even with the newest APFSDS munitions. Their protection isn't trustworthy against 125 mm tank guns either.


  1. Sven, thank you for taking the time to do this write up - what a fantastic read. I would think the Italian Army could equip four combined arms brigades, organize similar to your German brigades, and with this be much better suited peer warfare.

  2. I presume it would be too difficult to "fix" an army that doesn't have a standing army and organization is kept somewhat secret like Finland? Some light can be shed from wikipedia and other sources while most of these would be in finnish. Wiki and other sources will only give structure of battlegroups and number and structure of strategic level units.

  3. If you take the fairly self-evident assumptions, follow systematically the path of logical argument with disciplined intellect you should come grosso modo to such a conclusion. Sounds simple, but (Italian) military history has proven otherwise.

    That the Italian forces are far from such a state has many reasons and many of those decisions leading us to the current situation had little to do with military logic.

    Much could be added but I will leave it there as it is important to appreciate the big picture before maybe going into more detail.


  4. Might I add another general element to fix the Italian Armed Forces?

    Stop at once the Operation 'Strade Sicure'* in which military personnel has been used as a show of force since 2008. Roughly 4800 soldiers out of an army of 100000 are now directly involved in the whole affair.

    (1) A considerable number of units had to divert staff ressources into that operation and parcel out some of their limited boots making their primary tasks such as actually training for a big bad war even harder.

    (2) Italy already has the Carabinieri which in theory should be almost ideally suited for this role among it's confusing amount of partly overlapping institution. Bringing in the armed forces means lots of additional friction from rank issues to radios.

    (3) More worrying is the normalization of the internal use of the military for no particular reason or event with police-like powers. It is rather fitting that a former neo-fascist initiated this operation under a certain Berlusconi. Of course the recent moderate governments did prolong it again and again.

    To sum it up it is bad misuse of military ressources, showing a loss of military focus and a dangerous use of (non-carabinieri) military personnel over nearly a decade in a public security role all over Italy without any particular security reason.


    P.S: The Senate has an interesting financial overview of the whole thing.



    1. The costs per year are marginal, and I have read some positive things about the earlier use of the military to push back on the mafia in Southern cities, so I wouldn't rule out the use of the military for such purposes in the Italy yet.

      It's typical organisational laziness and inertia that an effort that lasted 8 years already didn't simply lead to a corresponding increase of nominal personnel strength for the carabinieri, though.

    2. The often praised 'Sicilian Vesper' was quite a different operation:

      (1) It was part of the Italian Republic's overall reaction against deadly assaults of Cosa Nostra against some of it's most prominent judicial representatives.

      (2) The mission was rather clearly focused as a support for the main anti-mafia effort, helping to free up other (police) personnel for other tasks.

      (3) It was basically limited to Sicily with soldiers per capita at least ten times higher.

      (4) The Italian state increased greatly the other ressources for the anti-mafia fight. Arguably this was more important then the laudible army effort.

      Strade Sicure seems to have the made it easier to avoid to invest more ressources into the public security forces.

      In short the deployment of forze armate should be done in a sensible fashion for a clear cause and not out of the blue all over Italy for all sorts of things.