ROME — Years of frustrated waiting by Italian Air Force officials finally ended with US State Department approval of arming Italy’s Reaper UAVs.
The deal, which must still be certified by Congress, will make Italy the second country after the UK to be authorized by the US to arm its Reapers, and comes four years after Italy first requested permission in 2011.
“There was perplexity in Italy about the US delay,” said Gen. Dino Tricarico, a former Italy Air Force chief, who is now head of the ICSA think tank in Rome.
“It seemed impossible that a loyal ally could be ruled out, while the UK, with its lesser UAV capacity, could be given permission immediately,” he added. “In Afghanistan we would have saved Italian lives if we had had armed drones.”
The green light from the US involves a $129.6 million deal, with General Atomics acting as prime contractor, for weapons purchases by Italy.
The proposed sale includes 156 AGM-114R2 Hellfire II missiles, 20 GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, 30 GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions and other armaments.
After first flying Predators in 2004, Italy built up a fleet of six upgraded Predator A’s, known as A+, and six Reapers, which are operated by the 28th squadron and normally fly out of Amendola in southern Italy.
However, the UAVs have this year been based at Sigonella in Sicily, sharing the base with US Global Hawks, while Amendola is upgraded to be able to host F-35s.
From Sigonella, the Italian UAVs have been used to help spot migrant vessels sailing from Libya to Italy.
In the last decade, the Italian fleet also has been used in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa, notably in Libya during the 2011 NATO air operations there.
Italy has now contributed a Predator and a Reaper to assist the European EUNAVFOR Med operation, which was set up this year to stop the people traffickers who cram migrants onto unstable boats for the Mediterranean crossing, often sending them to their deaths as the boats sink.
The operation is looking to seize traffickers on the open seas, but planners are hoping that international permission will be given for operations on the Libyan coast.
“Armed UAVs could be relevant to that phase of operations,” said Tricarico.
Another potential use of armed UAVs could be over Iraq, as part of ongoing efforts to bomb ISIS forces. Italy already has Tornados and two UAVs based in Kuwait, which are limited to carrying out surveillence missions over Iraq, despite US pressure for Italy to carry out bombing runs.
“The refusal to bomb is a case of Italian hypocrisy, but if we can overcome that then drones could be the best option,” said Tricarico.
On the home front, Italy has pushed harder than European neighbors to get UAVs into civilian airspace, with a series of regulations that allow flights over cities in cooperation with civilian air traffic controllers. Air Force UAVs have been used to track mafia suspects in Sicily, and a deal was signed with Italian police last year to use them for crowd monitoring at public events.
While it currently sends its pilots to train in the US, the Italian Air Force has also said it would like to set up a UAV pilot training school of its own.
A US defense source told Reuters that the green light on armaments was “symbolic of our trust in Italy as a partner," adding, "Italy is a responsible member of the international community and they have been with us in every significant recent NATO and US-led operation.”
On Nov. 5, Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera speculated that the US decision was a bid to weaken European efforts to develop UAVs in-house, thus ending dependency on US products.
“I wouldn’t rule that out,” said Tricarico, “but in any case the EU has been really late in developing its own drone.”