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Adm. Giuseppe De Giorgi took the helm of Italy’s Navy in January as the service moved toward cutting as many as 30 vessels over the next decade in order to fall in line with Italian defense cuts.
As a response, De Giorgi, the former commander in chief of the Italian fleet, has set Navy planners to work on a new class of dual-use vessels, displacing 3,500 to 4,000 tons, which he says will cheaply replace four, often smaller, vessel types and carry out civil-disaster operations and war missions.
With space for containers on deck, modular units below and plenty of room to make way for armament upgrades when needed, De Giorgi says 12 vessels will do the job and cost 30 percent less than the Navy’s fregata multi-missione (FREMM) ships.
Q. Will the new vessel have a less stealthy profile than other modern naval vessels? And how will you approach the combat operations center?
A. This is a break from the current trend — FREMM included — towards an uninterrupted hull with stealth capabilities.
We will be less radical about stealth, which cannot be a religion but must coexist with other functions. Stealth and radar signature are not the only things that determine the survivability of a ship.
Meanwhile, we would aim to combine the combat information center with the bridge. This would exploit concepts from aviation, where pilots have all the navigation and combat systems before them. It would require less crew and change the whole geometry of the vessel’s design.
Q. If you go dual-use, will you combine forces with Italy’s civil protection agency on disaster relief?
A. In a recent naval exercise in southern Italy simulating disaster relief work, we integrated a command center of the civil protection agency with that of the Navy onboard the carrier Cavour.
We used our amphibious warfare procedures for civil protection purposes. Fire-control procedures for finding targets were used to discover if bridges were functioning, to send in rescue helicopters rather than missiles, to send in jeeps and ambulances rather than gunfire.
The intelligence, the surveillance, the data fusion was the same. The Navy has a ship immediately ready to take on the mission.
Q. When was the first time you worked together with Italy’s civil protection agency?
A I first worked with them to free the bridge Ponte Sant Angelo on the Tiber in Rome from river vessels jammed underneath in 2009 thanks to high water.
I was head of the armed forces’ joint operational center. The civil protection agency asked for help, and I sent in Navy special forces divers to use explosives to free the vessels without damaging the historic bridge. Then we tied the vessels with cables and pulleys to four tracked vessels on shore to move them.
Q. The Navy is retiring old vessels to save money. How can you justify pushing for new ones?
A. New ships cost a lot less than older vessels and are safer. The fact that these ships have a role in peacetime will help public opinion see them as an investment and not a cost.
There is, in any case, the risk of a capability gap before the arrival of these vessels.
More than 54 percent of our resources arrive by sea, and the Mediterranean, which contains 1 percent of the seas’ surface, hosts 20 percent of the world’s shipping. We are the 13th biggest merchant fleet in the world, and 80 percent of our manufactured exports travel by sea.
I cannot imagine the Navy can disappear. I am confident we will find the funds to relaunch our fleet.
We also have overcapacity in the naval industry, and it would be a disaster to not maintain that expertise, just as competitors like [South] Korea are coming onto the market.
Q. The plans to buy a new LPD amphibious ship have slowed. How vital is that for the readiness of Italy’s joint amphibious force?
A. For amphibious operations, we now have the Garibaldi, used as a helicopter assault ship, and the three LPDs, the San Giorgio, San Giusto and San Marco.
But we are developing two LPDs, which are a long way off. The design is fixed, but we do not have funds yet. I am confident we will find funds, with construction starting in 2018. The launch of our joint amphibious force with the Army depends on these vessels.
Q. The Navy recently decided to make its FREMMs larger, further reducing compatibility with France’s FREMMs. Was it worth starting the FREMM program with France?
A. In the course of development, we realized we needed to put the AW101 [helicopter] on board the FREMM because of its range. We inserted a small section in the stern. It was not traumatic.
The work with the French was a very valuable experience. It helped the program get political backing. If we want to have a European defense we need these programs, while it helps joint operations and logistics. And with them the costs came down. It is a cost-effective vessel.
Q. Do you plan design changes to the FREMMs that will follow the vessels now under contract?
A. We have six FREMMs under contract and are very optimistic that we will receive approval from the government for two more options, with a total of 10 planned. We are studying engineering changes for the two new vessels. We are studying internal layouts. They will not be bigger. We want to make them simpler to reduce costs. We may eliminate a deck to be in line with the French model.
Q. What about upgrades to weaponry?
A. We believe that anti-ballistic missile capability is a fundamental capability that the Navy should have, and we are studying possibilities and costs to give our missiles that capability. An anti-missile battery on a ship is not an easy target to hit. At the same time, the EMPAR [European Multifunction Phased-Array Radar] being mounted on the ships has been updated to become active, and we are looking to move to a fixed-array radar in the seventh and eighth FREMMs, before a retrofit of the others.
Q. You need far less crew on the FREMMs and Horizon frigates thanks to new technology, but does that limit the time the vessels can spend at sea? How do you solve that problem?
A. The smaller crews today are not ready to sustain longer missions, and so you need to rethink the situation and plan on having standard crews for standard missions and larger crews for longer missions.
To have that possibility you need to have more beds than crew members, which would be the case in the new vessels we are planning, which would have a 90-strong crew, but 230 beds.
Q. The Navy wanted a minimum of 22 short takeoff, vertical-landing Joint Strike Fighters to replace its AV-8 Harriers, but is now getting just 15 due to cuts, and will share an air base with the Air Force’s 15 STOVLs. Is this going to work out?
A. Let’s see if over time we can obtain more aircraft.
Meanwhile I am confident the technical problems with the aircraft can be solved. The changes made during the development of the AV-8 teaches us this.
As for sharing a base, we will retain complete autonomy. There will be two groups, one focused on naval operations and the other focused on expeditionary operations. But we will be ready to form a critical mass if needed.
Q. What does that mean? Sharing aircraft? Will we see Air Force STOVL pilots flying off the decks of the Cavour?
A. That would not be a problem. Air Force pilots have already trained with the Navy for two- to three-year spans and have flown AV-8s off the deck of the Garibaldi, although to do this the Air Force pilot needs to be a sailor too, trained in onboard fire safety and logistics. Nor would I exclude Navy pilots flying Air Force STOVLs if the need arose. The planes will be identical.
That said, a lesson learned from the UK experience of putting Air Force and Navy Harriers under one command is that you need synergy, but you also need autonomy.
Q. How is the Navy responding to growing instability in the Mediterranean, from Syria right along to Libya, not to mention the increased Russian naval activity in the region?
A. Russia is a friend and not a threat.
As for the changing Mediterranean scenario, it is clear we must take more responsibility since the US 6th Fleet is no longer a fixture here. As for NATO, newer members like Poland and Hungary are cooperating, but they have smaller navies, meaning Italy must increase its naval role. This is going on as the Suez Canal becomes a fragile line of communication and piracy continues to be a strategic problem.
By Tom Kington in Rome.