The Italian Navy's Cavour aircraft carrier traveled to the the Middle East and Africa. (Agence France-Presse)
ROME — An unusual defense trade show held on the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour, which toured 20 countries in the Arabian Gulf and Africa over five months, has drawn glowing reviews from exhibitors who hope the Italian Navy will organize a follow-up trip aimed at Asian and South American destinations.
The Italian companies that displayed their wares on board for visiting delegations in every port were so impressed that they said it has made them question the value of more traditional, land-based shows.
“If we had organized a show in every one of these countries, it would have cost 20 times as much as our investment in the Cavour mission,” said Jarno Antonelli, defense communications director at small arms maker Beretta.
“There was a great deal of skepticism at the start; companies were involved at the last minute, but the result in Africa has been incredible,” said a source at Italy’s largest defense group, Finmeccanica, which was the major exhibitor.
The Cavour’s mission was the brainchild of the Italian Navy, which charged Italian companies about €13 million (US $17.9 million) to come aboard for the trip.
The ship traveled through the Suez Canal, past the gulf, around the Horn of Africa and back to Italy, stopping off in the gulf and at the African destinations of Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa, Angola, Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco and Algeria.
The industry money effectively allowed the Navy to run a five-month training mission and build ties with local navies far from home, an operation it would not otherwise have been able to afford, Navy Chief Adm. Giuseppe De Giorgi said at November’s launch.
Civil companies, including Italian furniture makers, also set up stands on board, while Italian humanitarian nongovernmental organizations took part, offering surgical operations on board the ship to locals during stops in Africa.
“It was the first time that Italy, or anyone, has combined a humanitarian mission with training, with capability building with local navies, with the promotion of Italian firms – civil and military, all at zero cost for the Navy,” said Adm. Enrico Credendino, who headed the coordinating unit for the mission in Rome.
“It worked well and if there are the conditions to repeat it, we would certainly consider it,” he added.
“When official delegations boarded the ship during port visits, you had them all to yourselves, as opposed to exhibiting at IDEX or Euronavale,” said Massimo Foti, regional manager at shipbuilder Intermarine, which participated in the mission.
“There was a very concrete communication with potential customers, not the usual ‘We’ll get back to you,’ ” he said.
During the visits, the Navy organized dinners for hundreds of guests on the flight deck of the Cavour, with a well-known Italian opera singer performing on one occasion.
“The delegations were guests, but in their own country, and their attention was greater than at normal shows, where perhaps the local defense minister will visit the stand on one in 10 occasions,” Antonelli said.
Finmeccanica companies were well represented.
“Jeddah was a profitable visit for AgustaWestland, as was the gulf as a whole, with the NH90 and AW101 helicopters on board the Cavour taking delegations up for flights,” the Finmeccanica source said. “The gulf stops were also important for Selex ES and Alenia Aermacchi at a time when the Eurofighter campaign is underway.”
Selex ES, Oto Melara and torpedo maker WASS profited from the Africa trip, he added.
“At a show like Le Bourget [site of the Paris Air Show], the meetings are often institutional, and you know the return will be on large programs, in the long term,” the Finmeccanica source said. “But in Africa, it was much more commercial; we felt we were closer to deals.”
Other officials cited the impression made by the Cavour at ports that had never before hosted a carrier.
“The investment that a firm like Finmeccanica makes in a show like Le Bourget or similar is far superior to what we spent on the Cavour, maybe a fourfold increase,” the Finmeccanica source said.
With rave reviews from industry, the source said the Navy is already mulling a second trip, adding, “I believe South America would have a big impact.” A second industrial source said he saw the Far East as a candidate.
More planning would avoid the kind of hitches experienced in Africa, the Finmeccanica source said. For instance, the ship arrived in South Africa during a holiday and pulled into Algiers days before a change of government. In Angola, the appearance of Italy’s defense minister was scrapped when the Italian government fell unexpectedly.
Still, a source at Elettronica, which participated in the trip, called it “very positive, well organized at short notice — an effective representation of Italy working as a system.”
The mission also was conceived as a way for the Italian Navy to build ties with local navies. The patrol vessel Commandante Borsini, one of three ships accompanying the Cavour, has stayed behind for two months in Mozambique to undertake joint training. Local naval officers boarded the Cavour in Nigeria for training and will stay on board until the ship returns to Italy on April 8.
De Giorgi joined the ships in Algiers on April 1 where the Italian Navy starts training Algerian sailors who will man the LPD vessel being built for Algeria by Italian shipyard Fincantieri.
The Navy also is looking to sell off older vessels to African navies, which would likely involve refitting work for Fincantieri, which built the vessels.
A Fincantieri official listed Kenya, Mozambique, Angola, Nigeria and Senegal as possible customers for used vessels.
“There is less interest in combat vessels than in protecting fishing zones, oil rigs and fighting piracy and terrorism — the Borsini’s training mission is proof of this,” said Gianmaria Gambacorta, Fincantieri defense marketing strategy director.
Angolan officials reportedly showed interest in buying Italy’s aging carrier, the Garibaldi, but Italian sources said the Angolan Navy lacks the know-how to operate a carrier.
“There have been talks about selling two to three used vessels and training to Angola, either Italian Minerva-class vessels, corvettes or 50-80-meter patrol vessels,” an Italian industrial source said. ■