ROME — As it shoots down Houthi drones in the Red Sea, sends submarines to monitor internet cables and shadows Russian ships in the Mediterranean, the Italian Navy has issued an urgent call for more personnel, echoing a growing debate in Italy about beefing up the country’s armed forces as war edges closer.

In its latest annual report, the Navy said it needed to hit a headcount of 39,000 to fulfill its ongoing missions, a massive 34% increase on its current roster of around 29,000.

The appeal echoed a speech made last week before parliament by Chief of Staff Adm. Giuseppe Cavo Dragone in which he called on lawmakers to authorize big boosts in numbers across the board – covering the army, navy and air force.

“We are absolutely undersized,” he said. While the Italian armed forces currently have a strength of 165,564, Cavo Dragone said 170,000 was “at the limit of survival.”

His appeal was shared in a TV interview last week by Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, who said Italy’s armed forces were not “at an acceptable level.”

The irony is that Italy has been working to reduce the size of its armed forces for over a decade, before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2020, sparking a high-intensity land war on Europe’s borders and sending generals back to the drawing board.

A 2012 law envisaged the reduction of Italy’s 190,000-strong armed forces to 150,000 and the shrinking has been ongoing, albeit slowly, ever since.

After the Ukraine invasion, a decree passed late last year added 10,000 back to the target, making 160,000 the new headcount to aim for, but Cavo Dragone was not impressed.

“150,000 was unworkable, while the 160,000 now approved is still little,” he said.

The Italian Navy report said the decree would, on paper, give it a headcount of 30,500, which is slightly higher than the 29,000 sailors it has now, but still far lower than the 39,000 it wants.

Last year the Navy was using an average of 4,000 sailors every day in operations, with the peak reached on April 27, when it deployed 42 ships, four submarines, 18 aircraft and 7,324 in operations.

The Navy has factored in lower headcounts into the design of its new PPA-class vessels which feature an unusual bridge designed along the lines of an aircraft cockpit that requires a smaller crew.

That was a practical solution, but less so during a conflict, said Andrea Margelletti, the president of the CeSI think tank in Rome and an adviser to the Italian ministry of defense.

“Small crews are fine until you are shot at and have to put out fires,” he said.

Margelletti said that rather than getting politicians to authorize a rise in headcounts, the armed forces’ big challenge was ensuring that the average age of serving men and women dropped.

“You can’t ask a solider in their 40s to lug a 30kg back pack,” he said.

Alessandro Marrone, who heads the defense programme at Rome think tank IAI, said the problem of aging soldiers could only be solved if the armed forces were able to help older servicemen and women move on to non-military jobs.

“You need to find them jobs in the private sector or other branches of government, and Italy does not have the set-up to do that,” he said.

Whether the problem was old soldiers or too few soldiers, Margelletti said Italy did not have much time to fix the problem.

“Russia wants to push on in Ukraine and the front will collapse if we do not provide more arms,” he said. “Russia knows its strongest weapon is our collective fear about entering the war, while our strongest weapon would be Russia knowing we will fight. I believe it is inevitable we will enter this war sooner or later, possibly defending a line from Kyiv to Odessa, with a 90,000 strong force drawn from countries like France, the U.K., Poland, the Baltics, Romania and finally Germany. Italy will also be asked to contribute,” he said.

“And we will not be able to rely on the U.S., not only if Trump wins - even if he doesn’t, due to the rising isolationism in the U.S.,” he added.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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