ROME — As warships get sleeker and stealthier, the head of the Italian Navy wants to buck the trend and plan a one-size-fits-all warship that will be cheap, roomy and dual use, even making space for containers on deck.
Adm. Giuseppe De Giorgi, who took over the Navy in January, told Defense News in an interview that he is pushing for a new generation of vessels that could be a floating hospital in disaster zones on one day and fight high-intensity wars the next.
De Giorgi’s plans come as Italy makes deep cuts to its armed forces, with around 30 naval vessels of various classes due out of service over the next decade, and only six to 10 fregata multi-missione (FREMM) ships slated to enter service.
Hence, the Navy chief’s plan to buy up to 12 vessels, weighing 3,500 to 4,000 tons, 125 meters long and 15 meters wide, and which he says can replace the whole range of ships being phased out, at lower cost. Those dimensions would make the ships slightly smaller than the FREMMs.
“We need to replace the Maestrale class and the Soldati class of vessels, as well as the corvettes and patrol vessels, vessels which are on average 30 years old,” he said. That would mean a vessel up to 4,000 tons replacing 2,000-ton patrol vessels.
“The ship I have in mind to accompany the FREMMs would be conceived from the start as dual use, fast and modular,” he said.
De Giorgi said the new vessel would achieve a top speed of at least 35 knots, “with a traditional, combined use of turbines and diesels, possibly two of each,” he said.
“It’s a concept in its early stages, but the General Staff has given preliminary approval for six vessels,” he said, referring to the type as a “simplified FREMM.” The cost, he said, would be about two-thirds of the price of a FREMM.
Building big would mean saving money, De Giorgi said.
“This ship will have a huge potential for growth, with just a 127mm gun on the bow and a 76mm gun in the stern at the start, and it would be able to host further armaments.
“And if I want to install an armament, its size means I don’t have to dismantle the whole vessel,” he said. “And that means I will save over the life of the vessel because I will not have paid out so much to update armaments or the radar. Furthermore, with more space, I can be more flexible about the systems I use, and maintenance will cost less.
“Additionally, the use of the ship becomes more extensive, since it will be used in rough weather that could stop a smaller vessel.”
De Giorgi’s ship would have a hangar for two NH90s or one AW101 helicopter and a fixed-array radar, an evolution from the rotating Empar used on the FREMMs.
Technicalities aside, the ship’s planned dual-use capability is no afterthought, and could help the program win funding from politicians who are being forced to cut spending and have a rapidly declining interest in backing high-priced, purely military programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Below the flight deck, the ship will contain ample space for modular loads, with two large openings on the side of the vessel to receive them, including mine-hunting systems and underwater vehicles for special operations. The ship also will contain a hospital to be used by Italy’s civil protection agency, and equipment for use by civil research and environmental protection agencies.
At the center of the ship’s deck, a large space could be used to carry four 15-meter special operations craft or two ramp-equipped landing craft, but also containers for civil use, with a crane to load and unload.
“The ship would be able to provide electricity and clean water to a community of 6,000 people, so that in case of a natural disaster, the ship could dock and supply water and electricity to a small town,” De Giorgi said. “Its high speed would also allow the ship to respond fast to disasters.”
The Navy recently took part in an exercise with the civil protection agency that simulated relief work after an earthquake.
“If you look at the map of Italy, you see that this ship, with its helicopters, could dock and reach any part of the country,” De Giorgi said.
To accommodate passengers, the ship would have 230 beds, despite requiring a crew of only 90.
“The modularity of this project is very much the idea behind the littoral combat ship,” said Christian Le Miere, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“It makes sense if you want to go multimission; you just need to be aware of the concerns over the time it takes to switch modules,” he said.
Le Miere said one concern about replacing various classes of naval vessels with one type is that if the type experienced a technical problem, that could temporarily take all of them out of service.
The dual-use concept, he said, is a sign of the times.
“Militaries in Europe today are not designed for high-intensity, state-on-state wars, so this makes sense,” Le Miere said. “But if they do look to source funding from other Italian government ministries because of the civil application, there could be questions about how to share time on the vessels. Bureaucracy can be a challenge.”
Apart from the new vessel, De Giorgi said he has a handful of other vessels on his wish list, including a new submarine rescue ship with oceanographic capabilities, as well as a supply ship.
For the new type, he said he would rely on in-house design work to get development underway. “We have reactivated our center for ship design to optimize costs, to reduce spending on development and increase money available for production.”