ROME — Italy has announced plans to arm its Reaper drones, six years after it first received permission from the U.S. to do so.
Rome detailed planned spending of €59 million (U.S. $69 million) on the project over the next seven years in its 2021 budget, adding that the total outlay would rise to €168 million.
Funding will slowly kick off with €2 million freed up in 2021 and 2022 each, followed by €5 million in 2023, €45 million per year from 2024 to 2026, and €5 million in 2027.
“Our vision is to equip the MQ-9s with a payload. It would be a normal evolution considering current threats,” an Air Force source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, told Defense News.
Italy operates both unarmed, upgraded Predator A drones as well as Reapers, and has deployed them to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa, notably in Libya during the 2011 NATO air operations there.
After lobbying the U.S. for permission to arm them in 2011, Italy finally got the green light in 2015 from the State Department, making it the second country after the U.K. to get approval.
Italy was offered at the time a $129.6 million deal, with General Atomics acting as prime contractor, for 156 AGM-114-R2 Hellfire II missiles, 20 GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, 30 GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions and other armaments.
Asked what munitions Italy would now be looking for, the Air Force source said: “We would likely be seeking the standard munitions.”
The decision not to jump on the U.S. offer in 2015 was likely linked to political sensitivities in Italy concerning armed drone missions, particularly following the entry into government in 2018 of the 5-Star Movement political party, which opposes certain arms purchases.
Since then the party has modified its stance while Italian defense spending has increased and as recent conflicts in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh have seen the widespread use of armed drones by regional players like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Although funding plans appeared in the Defense Ministry’s budget, the project must now win the approval of the Italian parliament. The source said he’s unaware of when lawmakers will vote on the proposal, stating: “We cannot foresee the schedule, but we hope soon.”
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.