Since 20 March 2011, the date of the start of operations, aimed at the realization of the main objectives set by the UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973, in example establishing a no-fly zone over Libyan skies, protecting civilians and the most populated areas of the North African country, the Italian Air Force has actively participated in the “Coalition of the Willing” in the scope of Operation Odyssey Dawn. On 31 March 2011, after the handover of command of military operations to the Alliance, the Italian Air Force maintained and reinforced its participation by contributing combat aircraft and seven air bases to the success of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya. The operations conducted in 2011 over the skies of Libya, supported by the staff and aircraft of 16 Nations, has accounted for the largest Italian Air Force operation after WWII. Since the beginning of the war, the Air Force has quickly fielded all the components and operational capabilities necessary to accurately and flexibly perform assigned missions. In more than seven months of operations, Italian Air Force assets – fighter aircraft, tanker aircraft and unmanned aircraft – have carried out patrol, air defense, air refueling, reconnaissance and neutralization of military targets missions. Overall, Air Force aircraft have carried out over 7% of the total missions over the Libyan skies in a context that has confirmed the essential role of strategic air power, both in terms of deterrence and application, to achieve rapid and effective implementation of policy objectives. Italy, and in particular the Air Force as a military force involved at the operational level, has played a basic and visible role, contributing decisively to the projection of NATO aero-space capabilities and its technical and logistical support. Italian Air Force contributions to the operations, specifically Operation Unified Protector, included relevant behind the scenes support elements. These elements included operational planners, contributing at all levels of the NATO command and control structure. At the Joint Operational planning level, Italy hosts the Joint Force Command (JFC) in Naples while concurrently contributing at the tactical level with the Combined Air Operation Center 5 (CAOC 5), Poggio Renatico (Ferrara).
Air assets involved
Fighter aircraft such as the F-16, Eurofighter, Tornado and AMX, have been operating as part of Operation Unified Protector, deployed from airbase Trapani under the Birgi Air Task Group, which also included Predator B remotely piloted aircraft, operating from airbase Amendola (Foggia). Tanker aircraft such as the KC-130J and KC-767A also conducted support missions from bases Pisa and Pratica di Mare respectively, contributing to air refueling missions. In addition, a G.222VS was employed for the detection of electromagnetic emissions in the area of operations. The number and type of Italian aircraft routinely employed – up to 12 in the same day of operations – were calibrated to the missions and military objectives specifically assigned by the Allied Command.
The missions carried out
Over the more than seven months of operations in Libya, Air Force aircraft have conducted more than 1,900 sorties, totaling more than 7,300 hours of flight, for missions such as:
- – neutralization of enemy air defenses (SEAD – Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses);
- – patrol and air defense (DCA – Defensive Counter Air);
- – attacks on predetermined ground targets (OCA – Offensive Counter Air);
- – armed reconnaissance and attacks on targets of opportunity (SCAR – Strike Coordination And Reconnaissance);
- – surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR – Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance);
- – air refueling (AAR – Air-to-Air Refueling);
- – detection of electromagnetic emissions (ECM – Electronic Counter Measures/EW – Electronic Warfare).
The Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, SEAD, is a skill in which the Italian Air Force is among the most capable in the international arena. As such, the ItAF was the only other force, together with the Americans, to have employed this capability in Operation Unified Protector. The equipment on board the Tornado ECR (Electronic Combat Reconnaissance) aircraft from Piacenza Airbase’s 50th Wing, is capable of detecting and locating dangerous mobile enemy air defense radar systems emissions and, if necessary, neutralizing them through the use of air-to-surface AGM-88 HARM (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile). This activity, which forces opposing forces to take down their radar to avoid being identified and destroyed, is a fundamental practice executed to protect air assets that enter into the area of operations. F-16 fighter aircraft from the 37th Wing, Airbase Trapani and Eurofighters from the 4th Wing, airbase Grosseto and the 36th Wing airbase Gioia del Colle, were engaged, from day one to the termination of the Operation, in air defense and patrol missions in support of the established no-fly zones in Libyan skies (DCA – Defensive Counter Air) for the protection of “friendly” aircraft from air and ground threats, and then to maintain air superiority necessary to successfully accomplish the assigned mission. Ground attack missions for the neutralization of military targets assigned by the Allied Command were carried out by Tornado IDS (Interdiction/Strike) fighter aircraft from the 6th Wing, airbase Ghedi (Brescia), AMX fighters from the 32nd Wing, airbase Amendola (Foggia), and 51st Wing, airbase Istrana (Treviso). The missions were planned and carried out against predetermined military targets (OCA – Offensive Counter Air), or against “dynamic” targets in areas of likely concentration of enemy assets (SCAR – Strike Coordination And Reconnaissance). All military objectives assigned to Italian aircraft by NATO were prescreened by a general officer in the NATO Chain of Command – the technical term, a red card holder – to verify compliance with the guidelines established by the policy authority. The instruments of Italian airpower employed, in perfect integration with the air forces of the other fifteen countries participating, enabled the precise and successful engagement of a very large percentage of military targets assigned, while avoiding any kind of collateral damage to the population. With over 96% accuracy Italian fighters fired more than 550 GPS and laser guided precision weapons including GBU-12,16,24,32,38, 48, EGBU-24, and long range Storm Shadow cruise missiles, used for the first time in real world operations. Air Force fighter jets – the Tornado IDS initially, and then also the AMX aircraft and unmanned Predator B – carried out extensive reconnaissance activity and the acquisition of aerial images and valuable data for the conduct of operations (ISR – Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance). In particular, of the more than 1,600 reconnaissance targets assigned to Italian aircraft, more than 340,000 high resolution pictures were realized through the “Reccelite” electronic pods employed on Tornado and AMX aircraft. Furthermore, about 250 hours of video was transmitted in real time to ground observers by Predators, the last Air Force asset made available by the Italian Government to NATO. For this operation, the Predator B was employed and controlled, via satellite, directly from the 32nd Wing, airbase Amendola. In comparison to the Predator A-Plus, the Predator B is larger in size, has higher performance capabilities, can remain on patrol longer, and is able to operate in areas inaccessible by other assets. For refueling operations (AAR – Air-to-Air Refuelling), a KC-130J tanker from the 46th Air Brigade, Pisa and a KC-767A from the 14th Wing, Pratica di Mare, were employed to support national assets. In addition, the Tornado IDS from the 6th Wing, airbase Ghedi, also participated in in-flight “buddy-buddy” refueling operations in support of similar weapons systems.
Support provided by the air bases involved
The Italian government authorized the use of seven bases for the conduct of flight missions: Trapani, Gioia del Colle, Sigonella, Decimomannu, Aviano, Amendola and Pantelleria. The first five bases were most involved providing technical and logistical support for both Italian and foreign aircraft numbering almost 200 in total, hailing from 11 foreign nations (Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, USA and United Kingdom, and). Notably, airbase Trapani Birgi hosted 14% of the total coalition sorties to include 300 cargo planes, processing approximately 2,000 tons of material. From Forward Operating Base (FOB) Trapani, one of four available to NATO in the European theater, an essential asset in modern air operations, the NATO AWACS, was employed to ensure effective command and control capabilities. In total, on the Italian Air Force bases involved, 4,800 permanently based and forward deployed military personnel have been engaged on an ongoing basis to provide a range of services and activities to include technical assistance on the ground, refueling, air traffic control, meteorological services, emergency response, health care, and of course lodging.
Reinforcement of the national air defense system and Search and Rescue
In parallel with the planned flight missions for Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector, the Italina Air Force put in place an enhanced national airspace defense and surveillance system, a core function that the Armed Forces already ensure on a continuous basis through an integrated system of radar and interceptor aircraft. Eurofighters from the 4th Wing, airbase Grosseto and the 36th Wing, airbase Gioia del Colle, together with F-16s from the 37th Wing, airbase Trapani are always on alert. These ready aircraft remain postured for the call from aerial surveillance centers, taking off in a few minutes to intercept “suspicious” aircraft and counter any threat posed to Italian territory.With the development of the Libyan crisis, this structure has been enhanced by placing a greater number of aircraft on operational readiness status. In addition, a SPADA anti-aircraft battery was deployed to airbase Trapani. This is one of the batteries supplied by the 2nd Wing, Rivolto (Udine) that provides training and administration for the entire Armed Forces missile component. The SPADA is a point missile defense system employed in specific areas, such as an airport, able to take action against aerial threats at low and very low altitude, thus integrating the Italian air defense system based on fighter interceptors. Finally, on airbases Trapani, Decimomannu (Cagliari) and Brindisi, where they routinely operate HH-3F and AB.212 helicopters for national search and rescue services, the level of operational readiness for the potential search and recovery of flight crews in distress was reinforced.