ROME — The Italian Navy has followed up on its dual-use design for new multifunctional ships with a fresh design for its new landing helicopter dock (LHD) that officials say pushes the service's civil-military ethos even further.
After signing contracts with Italian industry in May for six multifunctional or so-called PPA vessels, the Navy signed a €1.1 billion (US $1.2 billion) deal earlier this month for its new LHD, a 25-knot, 200-meter-long vessel that will enter service around 2022.
A senior Navy official said dual civil-military use was the "driving concept" in the design of the new ship, as well as interoperability, reflecting Navy chief Giuseppe de Giorgi's desire to build a new generation of ships that can handle disaster relief as well as war fighting.
The biggest qualification for dual use is the on-board hospital, which will cover 700 square meters — as large as the one on Italy's Cavour aircraft carrier and six times as large as the hospitals on the Navy's three current landing platform dock vessels.
Designed to meet NATO's Role 2 (Enhanced) level, the hospital will offer an intensive care ward, a surgery and 50 beds, the Navy official said. If the ship is able to dock in a disaster area, it is designed to provide power, as well as water from its desalination system, for a community of 6,000 people,.
Two cranes on the top deck will help hoist containers to and from the deck, where space is available for five AW101 helicopters, up from the three helicopter spaces on the serving LHDs.
The official, who declined to be named, said the floodable dock in the vessel was normally dry one meter above the water line, meaning that when in dock, trucks could drive onto the ship up the stern ramp, although a side ramp is also available. To conduct amphibious operations and launch landing crafts, some ballast tanks will be filled with seawater causing a controlled lowering of the aft end of the ship up to 5 feet, prompting water to enter the dock.
Once onboard, container trucks will be able to park in the so-called garage deck, or drive up a ramp into the hangar deck above, with a 1,200-meter-long space available for parking on the two decks combined. The hangar deck will also store helicopters brought off the top deck by elevator, an option not available with the current LPDs.
"That elevator can also be used to take containers to and from the top deck," the official said.
One Italian analyst said he had his doubts about dual-use ships.
"If you have a civilian emergency on your hands, you risk deploying a ship which costs 10 times more to run than a ferry or another civilian ship," said the analyst, who declined to be named. "Using a ship like this to pick up migrants at sea will also use up hours of the operational life of the vessel, which cannot then be used for defense."
The Navy's logic, as argued by De Giorgi, is that vessels like the LHD must be ready to assist during disasters and evacuations as well as handling modern combat.
On the combat side, the floodable dock will host four landing craft, each able to carry 60 metric tons, allowing them to ferry the Italian Army's Ariete tank. The Navy official said the craft would be new and could be afforded thanks to a rejuggling of Italy's total €5.4 billion spending package for new ships.
"The floodable dock is larger than in our current LPDs, which carry only two landing craft, and it is big enough to host a US military hovercraft," the official said. "We won't be buying one, but it makes the ship interoperable."
Three Oto Melara 76mm cannons will be used. Current designs show one cannon at the front of the top deck, but the Navy official said that was not definite.
"We're conducting studies to analyze airflow disturbance caused by the gun across the flight deck," he said, adding that the final design review would be evaluated at the beginning of 2017.
While the PPA vessels will feature a new type of "cockpit" bridge, allowing fewer crew, the LHD will use a traditional bridge.
"With 450 crew on board, there was less need to lower the head count on the bridge, while the ship's combat system is simpler and cheaper," the official said.
The LHD will use the same fixed-face radar antennae as the PPA vessels, albeit in X-band rather than dual band, as well as an L-band long-range radar similar to that used on the Cavour.
The contract for the vessel is being handled by Italy's procurement office rather than European procurement office OCCAR, which was asked to handle the PPA contracts and the contract for a new logistics ship.
"The logistics ships and PPAs have greater export potential, hence using OCCAR," the official said.
With €1.1 billion spent on the LHD, 0.35 billion €350 million on the logistics ship and €3.9 billion euros envisaged for six PPAs plus one option, the funding package for new ships runs to €5.35 billion. That will leave €50 million to sign a contract by year's end for two fast vessels for Italy’s special forces, as well as cash for unforeseen extra expenditure on the multi-year contract, the official said.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.