ROME — Italian Air Force F-35 fighter jets have reached initial operating capability, Gen. Alberto Rosso, the country’s Air Force chief, said Nov. 30. The announcement marks the first time the aircraft has achieved the milestone in Europe.
Officials broke the news at Italy’s Amendola Air Base in southern Italy, where eight Italian F-35s are stationed, and the announcement coincided with the staging of the latest edition of the 10-nation Tactical Leadership Program — a course for mission commanders. The course is regularly held in Spain, but was moved to Amendola to help with the debut of the Italian F-35s in the program. That program involved 50 aircraft and the participation of Italy, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Belgium, France, Holland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“This is an important day, since it is the first concrete integration of fourth and fifth generation aircraft,” Rosso said.
Italy has said it will order 90 F-35s, including 60 F-35As and 30 F-35Bs, although the current Italian government, which took office in June, has declined to provide a final total.
Italy has thus far taken delivery of 10 F-35As and one F-35B. Two of the As and the B aircraft are being used for training in the United States, while eight of the As have been deployed to Amendola. However, one aircraft is back at the Italian assembly line for maintenance, repair, overhaul, and upgrade.
The Italian aircraft have totaled 2,000 flying hours.
A series of milestones since the delivery of the first aircraft to Amendola in December 2016 prompted officials to declare the new milestone. Those included the placing of aircraft on operational alert status in March. Then in June, four aircraft were deployed to Rivolto air base in northern Italy where they flew training exercises across the border at Polygone electronic warfare range in Germany.
“The weather was terrible and it played a major part in the obtaining of IOC,” said one official.
Along with aircraft from visiting air forces at Amendola in late November, one of Italy’s two CAEW early warning Gulfstream aircraft took part in the training course.
Officials said that getting the F-35 and the Gulfstreams to work together was successful. “It’s all about shifting from vocal communications to data links, to the point that what you see on the screen of the F-35 is what you see on the screen of the Gulfstream,” said one official.
Base commander Col. Davide Marzinotto said another key factor was upgrading all eight aircraft to Block 3F software from the previous Block 3i. “The U.S. Marines declared IOC with Block 3i, but we decided on the upgrade to 3F before doing so,” he said.
Weaponry enabled through Block 3i included the AMRAAM missile, and GBU 12 and 31 munitions. With Block 3F software, Gatling guns can be used as well as the GBU 39 small diameter bomb.
Marzinotto said he was monitoring the F-35’s ALIS logistics system, which has raised concern over the potential need among F-35 partners to share sensitive data on aircraft use in order to benefit from the common system.
“ALIS is a new approach and there was a need to find a right balance between sovereignty and support, given that when you want to share spare parts supply you need to share information,” he said.
“ALIS is a great evolution,” he added, but “it is a challenge to protect information. After air forces asked for it, we will be the first outside the U.S. to receive, in the first quarter of next year, an upgrade to satisfy the careful sharing of information.”
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.