ROME — An Italian government document has sparked a debate over the use of bewilderingly bureaucratic and potentially confusing figures to describe armaments sales.
The annual report, which quantifies and analyzes arms exports in 2015, suggests that Italian defense exports tripled last year. Published this month and running hundreds of pages, it states that licenses for exports released to Italian firms were worth a total of €7.88 billion (US $8.91 billion) last year, a huge leap from the €2.65 billion recorded in 2014.
"The recovery in the international defense sector, which began in 2014 after a fall in 2013, is now consolidated," according to the document.
One Italian politician said that the report's biggest failing was that it was still produced on paper every year, rather than in electronic format.
"It runs to hundreds of pages and in paper format it is impossible to do any data mining," said Massimo Artini, a member of parliament and vice president of the defense commission of the lower house of parliament. "Like this, the document has little value, and last year the member of parliament who presented the report to the commission admitted it was difficult to use. If the companies involved supplied their data digitally to the ministry, maybe the ministry might supply us with a digital report."
The document lists Alenia Aermacchi, the unit of Leonardo-Finmeccanica, as top exporter, with a €2.83 billion, or 36 percent share, followed by AgustaWestland at €1.76 billion, or 22.4 percent, and GE's Avio on €659 million, or 8.4 percent.
Alenia had a good year, supplying M-346 jet trainers to Israel, C-27J tactical transports to Australia and Jjoint Sstrike Ffighter wings to Lockheed Martin in the US. AgustaWestland continued its role as a major Italian exporter due to its global helicopter sales.
The list of top country destinations, however, does not immediately appear as cogent.
The UK is the top destination, with €1.3 billion in export licences granted, followed by Germany with €1.2 billion and the US with €472 million.
The high level of exports in Europe are due to the fact the compilers of the data include licenses for supplying exporting components for international programs such as the Eurofighter, in which Italy, Germany and the UK are partners.
The document reveals that the total value of licenses issued last year for such international cooperation deals was €3.18 billion. Removing that figure from the total leaves just €4.69 billion in true export sales in 2015. The same calculation for 2014 gives €2.3 billion in true exports, meaning exports doubled last year instead of tripling.
A further problem with the figures derives from the surprise listing of Italy’s Industrie Bitossi as the 10th largest exporter, with €160 million in licenses granted.
Based near Florence, the firm makes aluminium oxide components for panels for armored vehicles as well as body armor, and has secured contracts in the US, which include supplying foreign military sales deals for third countries.
However, the firm said its defense sales last year totaled less than €20 million, far lower than the €160 million worth of licenses granted. One explanation is that the firm last year applied for licenses for deals yet to be confirmed, knowing that if and when the deals were signed it would need to quickly acquire the licenses.
"The licenses cover potential contracts over the next four years," according to a manager at the firm.
An official from another firm on the top 10 list confirmed that licenses were not an accurate reflection of actual exports in a given year.
"Although the problem has been repeatedly discussed, the annual report is still difficult to interpret and substantially unusable because the quantity of data, which while detailed, does not give a full picture of the state of exports," said Michele Nones, head of the security and defense department at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), a Rome-based think tank.
An accurate figure for real exports carried out in 2015 can be found on page 241 of the second volume of the report in a chapter related to Italian customs statistics. There, the figure for actual export sales given is €3 billion.
In a table compiled by IAI, the 2014 figure is €2.95 billion, meaning there was a small rise last year. Between 2011 and 2014, the figure hovered around €2.7 billion.