ROME — The Italian Air Force and Navy are due to take delivery of the first of four ATR 72 maritime patrol aircraft from Leonardo-Finmeccanica to replace ageing Atlantique aircraft, which they fly out of Sicily's Sigonella air base.
The delivery, which is reportedly due in the next few weeks, marks the culmination of an eight-year wait since Italy opted to spend €360 million (US $397 million) on the aircraft in 2008.
As naval vessels prowl the seas off the Libyan coast, looking for endangered migrants, and conflict zones from Syria to Libya put the Mediterranean back on the front pages, Italy risks losing its maritime patrol reach in the region. Its aging fleet of Atlantiques are to go out of service as Italy struggles to find spare parts.
"There is no way we can afford to have a lack of assets in the area right now," an Italian defense source said.
In its recent defense white paper, Italy set out its ambition to have a military edge over its neighbors in the Mediterranean, an area that Rome considers its backyard.
That said, the ATR 72s will not offer anti-submarine capabilities like the Atlantiques, leaving a capability gap that might only be filled if anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities are added to the aircraft at a later date.
That ambition is reflected in the decision to make the aircraft fit four pylons for torpedoes if required.
In the middle of the last decade Italy seriously considered becoming an early customer of the Boeing P8, which would have kept an Italian fixed wing ASW capability, but budget shortfalls meant settling for the ATR 72.
What Italy gets is an aircraft equipped with Leonardo's Seaspray 7300 radar, Link 16, electronic intelligence capabilities, four operator stations, a self-protection suite from Elettronica, the Star Safire HD electro-optical turret and a mission system based on Leonardo's ATOS system.
Following the pending delivery, Italy will receive a second and a third aircraft within two months and the fourth aircraft within a year. The last aircraft will offer satellite links — including the ability to link to Italy's Sicral military communications satellite — as well as use of Vortex, a line-of-sight video data link system. Those two capabilities will be retrofitted to the other three aircraft, an industry source said.
Delivery is late, with early predictions of deliveries in 2012 made back in 2008 at the time of the contract signing. The industrial source said changing customer requirements had pushed deliveries back.
The aircraft will offer 10-hour endurance compared to the six hours offered by the smaller ATR 42, which is in service as a maritime patrol aircraft with the Italian tax police and coast guard, as well as with the Nigerian Navy.
As with the Atlantiques, the Italian Navy will handle tasking orders for missions, while the crew will be a mixture of Air Force and Navy personnel.
Leonardo has in the meantime sold six ATR 72s in ASW format to Turkey, complete with a Thales mission system and a TAI weapons system. The first of the aircraft was due to undergo certification at Leonardo's facility in Turin following the Farnborough air show before final delivery to the Turkish navy, the industrial source said.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.