ROME — Italy plans to send air defense weapons to Ukraine, possibly including the SAMP/T system, Italian media reports have suggested, despite doubts over training and supplies.
Rome is gearing up for its sixth dispatch of arms to Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February.
Italy has been tightlipped about what it sent so far. However, Stinger surface-to-air missiles, mortars, and Milan or Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons were reportedly planned for previous consignments, as well as Browning heavy machine guns, MG-type light machine guns and systems for countering improvised explosive devices. Italy also reportedly sent multiple-launch rocket systems, PzH 2000 howitzers and vehicles over the course of the year.
With Russia using Iranian-made drones to knock out vital infrastructure in Ukrainian cities, Kyiv has appealed for more air defense systems. Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he specifically asked Italy to send air defense capabilities it manufactured.
That interview increased speculation that SAMP/T batteries, built by Italy and France, could be on their way to the front line.
“Italy classified the arms it sends to Ukraine, but rumors suggest the next package will likely include air defense and missile defense, given Ukraine is gaining ground but has to defend its cities from drones,” Alessandro Marrone, who heads the defense program at the Rome-based think tank IAI, told Defense News.
Entering service with the Italian Army in 2013, SAMP/T is a truck-based tactical anti-missile system designed to counter cruise missiles, manned and unmanned aircraft, and tactical ballistic missiles.
In 2016, Italy sent a battery to Turkey as part of a NATO operation to protect the city of Kahramanmaras from the threat of Syrian missile attacks.
But an Italian analyst told Defense News there are two problems involved in sending the SAMP/T.
“It’s a complicated system and would need a large amount of training, and Italy simply doesn’t have many batteries to send,” the analyst on the condition of anonymity because the individual did not want to publicly discuss the government’s decision on this topic.
According to the Italian Army, the military currently has five batteries in service. That means it is more likely Italy will supply its older — and more abundant — Skyguard-Aspide air defense missile system, built by MBDA Italy and Germany’s Rheinmetall.
Italy’s first arms shipments to Ukraine were authorized by the government of then-Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who was replaced last month by hard-right leader Giorgia Meloni following elections. Meloni leads a coalition with League party leader Matteo Salvini and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Both Salvini and Berlusconi have been strong admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past, and both backed his annexation of Crimea in 2014, raising fears that Meloni’s new administration might baulk at continuing the flow of weapons to Ukraine.
But Meloni has repeatedly committed to backing Kyiv and claimed the flow of arms will continue uninterrupted.
However, she does face a large number of voters who are against supplying weapons. Last weekend, at least 40,000 protestors took to the streets of Rome to call for peace in Ukraine, with many opposing arms shipments and carrying banners condemning NATO.
Giuseppe Conte, the leader of the Five Star party, has challenged the government to hold a debate over the next shipment in Parliament.
“Italy is one of [the] few countries to keep the list classified,” Marrone noted. “The inner circle in NATO knows what is being sent, but the wider foreign policy, defense and NATO communities do not have official data.
“If Italy were to declassify its donations, it would boost its profile in NATO.”
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.