Five of Europe's female defense ministers — from left, Mimi Kodheli, Albania; Jeanine Hennis Plasschaert, the Netherlands; Ursula von der Leyen, Germany; Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, Norway; and Roberta Pinotti, Italy — attend a NATO defense ministers' meeting Feb. 26 in Brussels. (Agence France-Presse)
ROME — The naming of Roberta Pinotti as Italy’s new defense minister brings to five the number of female defense ministers representing countries that collectively account for more than one-third of Western Europe’s defense spending.
Italy joins Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden, which all have women in a role often seen as a male bastion. Albania’s defense minister is also a woman.
“I think it is more coincidence than a planned, coordinated strategy across Europe,” said independent UK defense analyst Alex Ashbourne.
“And I think it’s a good thing, not because women do things differently than men but because it’s about time,” she added. “I would like to think that throughout Europe and the US women are being appointed across government because they have appropriate skills, rather than to fulfill some gender diversity quota.”
According to spending figures collated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the five nations spend $102.8 billion on defense annually, accounting for more than one-third of the $286 billion spent in Western Europe, which, in SIPRI’s calculations, includes Turkey.
Ashbourne played down suggestions in the European media that women were being appointed defense ministers because the role had been “downgraded,” and she warned against presuming the female ministers would be soft touches, citing German Minister Ursula von der Leyen, 55, a mother of seven, as an example.
“Shehas already demonstrated her ruthlessness by firing two of her top team recently, including the national armaments director, over the leaking of news about scrapping further Eurofighter purchases, and about the costs, management and timings of top programs. To get to the top in any sector or in government, women have to be tough. And — drawing from UK history — that toughness is respected by the senior military leadership,” she said, pointing to the “good experience” of Baroness Symons as procurement minister in the Blair government.
Of the four Northern European female defense ministers, only one has had military experience. Sweden’s Karin Enström, 47, is a captain in the Swedish Marines.
Pinotti arrived on the job after a decade handling defense issues in parliament. After entering politics as a member of the Italian Communist Party, later joining the center-left Democratic Party, Pinotti was elected in 2001 to parliament, where she worked on the Italian banning of cluster bombs and joined the parliamentary defense commission. Elected president of the commission in 2006, she became undersecretary for defense, with responsibility for procurement, in 2013.
She was named minister Feb. 21 by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who took power in February from incumbent Enrico Letta, without an election, after a power struggle within the center-left Democratic Party, to which Letta and Renzi belong.
“Pinotti is an expert in defense who has shown she is determined and well prepared,” said Michele Nones, head of the security and defense department at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a Rome think tank.
Pinotti inherits from her predecessor, Maurizio Mauro, a series of challenges facing Italy’s defense establishment, starting with orders of the F-35 joint strike fighter, which officially remain suspended pending a parliamentary inquiry sparked last year by criticism of the program’s cost.
“There is an investigation underway,” she told Genoa newspaper Il Secolo XIX, when asked about the program. “It would not be correct for a just-appointed minister to take a position now.”
But Pinotti will need to grasp the initiative soon since there is little clarity on when or what parliament will decide and how long it can keep orders frozen.
“Pinotti needs to clear up the confusion surrounding the JSF and tackle the issue in parliament,” said Leonardo Tricarico, a former head of the Italian Air Force and now president of the Italian Intelligence Culture and Strategic Analysis Foundation, a Rome-based think tank.
“I am convinced that the current order of 90 is correct,” he said. “But even if a decision is made to reduce the order, you don’t actually need to decide now since the Italian purchases are being made in small batches, spread over 15 years. What you do need is to establish a timetable for decision-making.
“In the meantime, she needs to work on cutting out the redundancies in the armed forces and drawing up a long-term plan to get a balanced military in view of past and possible missions,” Tricarico said. “That will help decide on what to cut, and it means a new white paper, given that the last one was in 2001. If Pinotti needs five years to decide all this, that is acceptable.”
Pinotti has said a new white paper will be one of her first priorities as minister.
One defense analyst said another challenge for Pinotti would be implementing a planned cut of Italian military personnel from 180,000 to 150,000, as laid out in legislation pushed through in 2012.
A key element of the reform was early retirements, allowing older personnel to be replaced with younger soldiers, who would be paid less. But early retirements were cut from an actuating decree, which needed to be passed in December to make the legislation fully effective.
“The result is that the armed forces will still drop to 150,000, but with personnel who are older, more expensive and less operational,” the source said.
“Sending soldiers to collect their pension early was not considered acceptable, but the problem is that Italy’s 150,000 soldiers must be warriors, not employees,” said Vincenzo Camporini, former head of the General Staff, now vice president and security and defense analyst with the Istituto Affari Internazionali.
“I would have worked in requalifying personnel for civilian employment, and I believe that is still an alternative.” ■