The Italian aircraft carrier Cavour will lead a group of vessels visiting ports in the Mideast and Africa, promoting Italian military and civilian products. (Wikimedia)
ROME — A fleet of Italian Navy vessels led by the aircraft carrier Cavour is setting off on an unusual trip around the Middle East and Africa that will combine crew training and diplomacy with a privately funded sales trip for Italian industry.
Departing from Italy on Nov. 13, the Cavour will be loaded with sales teams from defense companies such as Finmeccanica, Fincantieri, Elettronica and Beretta, turning the vessel into a “large defense show like Le Bourget,” said Italian Defense Minister Mario Mauro at a conference announcing the mission on Nov. 5.
Setting up mobile showrooms alongside the defense firms on board will be the makers of Italian furniture and civilian aircraft, as well as representatives of the Italian Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations.
The rationale behind the traveling sales mission, which will call at 19 ports before returning to Italy in April, is that companies on board will foot the bill, effectively underwriting crew training as regular funding for exercises dries up.
Industry will pay more than €10 million euros (US $13.5 million) for fuel costs and €3 million for other expenses, including port fees, while the Navy will pick up the €7 million wages bill, said Navy chief Adm. Giuseppe De Giorgi.
Addressing the news conference, Italy’s military chief of staff, Adm. Luigi Binelli Mantelli, spoke of the benefits of being able to “train our crews for five months in a challenging climate, far from home.”
Accompanying the Cavour will be the patrol vessel Comandante Borsini, the support ship Etna and the multimission frigate Bergamini.
The Navy has been pushing to find creative ways to fund crew training while maintenance and operations budgets are eroding as planners divert large amounts for personnel spending.
In the three-year budget published this year, maintenance and operations funding slips from €1.33 billion this year to €1.32 billion in 2014 and to €1.3 billion in 2015.
Apart from training, De Giorgi said the mission would help spur cooperation with allied navies that the fleet calls on during the trip, including Mozambique, where the Italian and local navies are due to sign a cooperation deal.
The marketing of Italian naval vessels also would be on the agenda in the Arabian Gulf, Morocco, South Africa and Mozambique, while in Angola, talks would continue about Italian industry helping to develop a new type vessel for the local navy, he said.
The 27,600-ton Cavour has been involved in marketing activities before. In 2010, its maiden mission took it to earthquake-stricken Haiti with aid, earthmoving vehicles, hospital facilities and 900 personnel. But it also stopped off in Brazil, ostensibly to take on Brazilian medical personnel, but also to support Rome’s efforts to market naval vessels to Brazil.
Finmeccanica and Fincantieri, the two state-controlled companies that team on Italy’s naval construction, footed most of the bill for the mission.
This time, the mission has a more determinedly commercial profile, with potential buyers scheduled to board the Cavour at each port to view displays.
For companies in the Finmeccanica group, that means focusing on the gulf ports in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
AgustaWestland will be parking an NH90 and AW101 helicopter on board the Cavour, while Oto Melara will promote its new guided munitions and Selex ES the combat management system it installed on Cavour. Torpedo unit WASS will promote its Black Shark torpedo, while visitors also will see the Storm Shadow, Meteor and Brimstone missiles built by MBDA, in which Finmeccanica holds a stake.
Small-vessel builder Intermarine is joining the trip, as is small arms maker Beretta.
“We are interested in the visits to the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait,” said Lorenzo Benigni, vice president for communications at electronics firm Elettronica, which has supplied self-protection systems on Cavour.
The defense stands will share space with displays promoting Italy’s hosting of Expo 2015, as well as stands taken by small aircraft maker Blackshape, tire-maker Pirelli and business aircraft company Piaggio Aero. Railway technology group Mermec and microsatellite builder Sitael also will be represented, as well as an Italian trade association grouping 2,800 furniture and wooden goods manufacturers.
The mission, De Giorgi said, represented “a business card for Italy,” while Mauro said, “the Cavour will be a piece of Italy.”
Following the stops in the gulf, the ships will make stops in Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa, Angola, Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco and Algeria. During African stops, humanitarian groups on board, including 60 Red Cross volunteers, will work with locals.
Combined, the military presence, the marketing of Italian hardware and the humanitarian aid would show Italy is taking care of “360 degrees of cooperation,” De Giorgi said. The mission reflects De Giorgi’s desire to engage the Navy in civil tasks. Navy vessels help rescue migrants setting out in the Mediterranean Sea to cross to Italy on rickety fishing vessels.