ROME — As terrorist attacks and full-scale warfare escalate in North Africa, Italy has renewed its lease of a Lockheed Martin signals intelligence aircraft while a Pentagon-chartered King Air aircraft has begun surveillance flights over the region from Italy.
Italy first leased the Gulfstream III SIGINT aircraft from Lockheed Martin in 2012 as its G222 SIGINT aircraft was retired following final service in the NATO air campaign over Libya in 2011.
Flying from Pratica di Mare Air Base south of Rome, with Lockheed Martin pilots on board, the Gulfstream aircraft has been flown since, with the lease renewed yearly.
Now, the lease again has been renewed to the spring of 2016, a source knowledgeable of the deal told Defense News.
Known as the Airborne Multi-INT Laboratory, the Gulfstream is a flying ISR test bed offering communications intelligence and electronic intelligence (ELINT) capability, as well as an electro-optic sensor and ground datalink.
The aircraft is due back in Italy this month after undergoing maintenance in the US, the source said. The program is run by Italy's military General Staff and all data is handled by Italy.
The Italian parliament signed off on the acquisition of a SIGINT aircraft in as far back as 2009 but funds were never found, despite requests for information being sent to Lockheed Martin and Israel's Elta.
Last year, Italian industrial sources said Italian firms would be able to provide the capability, an option that could be more attractive to defense planners looking to prop up Italy's industrial base, but the new lease suggests officials are keeping faith with the Lockheed lease solution.
"As a civilian aircraft this Gulfstream will not go into 'hot' areas, but Italy still needs a platform like this," said Gabriele Iacovino, an analyst at the International Study Center in Rome.
"However, leasing must be a temporary solution," he added. With Italy preparing to participate in a European military operation to halt put a stop to people-trafficking from the shores of Libya, which saw 170,000 migrants sent by boat to Italy last year, Iacovino said that the need for a SIGINT aircraft was increasing.
The requirement may get a mention in a strategy document generals are expected to draw up by year end based on Italy's new defense white paper.
The white paper called on Italy to take a leading role in the security of the Mediterranean area, which is currently at risk as rival governments engage in civil war in Libya and after a terrorist attack in Tunisia last month prompted a state of emergency.
More than Over 30 tourists were murdered on a beach when a lone gunman opened fire with a Kalashnikov after training with a jihadi group in neighboring Libya. The attack followed an assault by islamist gunmen on a museum in Tunisia in March that which left 22 people dead.
After the museum attack, a flight-tracking site picked up flights made in March by a Beechcraft King Air 350ER from the Italian island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean to remote areas in western Tunisia, where the attackers were thought to be hiding, and where the aircraft loitered.
The aircraft was registered to Aircraft Logistics Group LLC, a US firm.
Then, Italian Defense Undersecretary Domenico Rossi told parliament that the aircraft was flying surveillence missions on behalf of US Africa Command, after a request had been made to the Italian government.
Although the US could have flown missions from its base at Sigonella on the island of Sicily, Pantelleria was closer to North Africa, said Rossi, hence the request. On the island, which is further south than the most northern tip of Tunisia, the Italian Air Force is giving support to the King Air flights, Rossi said.
The US government has asked to continue daily flights until year end, he added.
"Air operations in the Mediterranean have been going on for decades thanks to the strong partnership between the US and our partners in the region," said an Africom spokesman.
"While we cannot discuss the operational details of any particular mission, we can confirm
air operations from Pantelleria are part of ongoing multinational stabilization efforts," he added.
"The aircraft operating from the Pantelleria airfield carry no weapons or offensive capability — we're sharing information and communications capability to support partner nation requests for assistance."
Last month, the US carried out its first air raids on Libya since 2011, sending F-15s to mount an attack on Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a jihadist who led a deadly attack on an Algerian gas facility two years ago.
Even though the official government in Libya claimed Belmokhtar had been killed in the raid, Iacovino said he had not been present. "These groups will always announce the death of a leader and no announcement has been made," he said.