"Early and Forward": A New Strategic Concept for the Italian Navy

By Commander Michele Cosentino, Italian Navy

Most of the region's security challenges are rooted in socio-economic problems ill suited for NATO or other military organizations to address directly. These challenges are clearly better left to initiatives under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union (EU). Efforts such as those undertaken in the context of the Barcelona Declaration have significant value for the region and should be synchronized with NATO's recent initiatives aimed at fostering and improving cooperation with some North African and Middle Eastern nations.

However, a clear agreement exists that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems do pose the most serious threats to stability and security in the area. Weapons of mass destruction may soon directly threaten NATO territories and populations. The instability in the "Enlarged Mediterranean" could promote the development of conditions that may make the use of weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems more likely. Indeed, the acquisition of these capabilities to deter Western states is probably the rationale behind the acquisition strategy being pursued by countries like Iran, which is seeking to jeopardize the ability of outside forces to intervene in the Gulf region through its procurement of powerful new weapon systems (such as intermediate or long range ballistic missiles and Kilo -class submarines). Should new extremist regimes and rogue nations develop along the Mediterranean's southern or eastern littorals, or in any sensitive area of the "Enlarged Mediterranean," one likely could expect that these states would pursue a similar strategy to protect their interests, possibly with the aid of nations geographically outside the region.

Italian Naval Policy

By carefully looking at the evolution of the current geostrategic situation, the Italian Navy has developed a new maritime strategic concept in accordance with a foreign and security policy mainly focused on NATO and Europe, but also oriented toward acquiring a global reach. For Italy, the "Enlarged Mediterranean" is the most important strategic theater, but new theaters are being considered as well. The new maritime strategy has been shaped to meet forward presence, surveillance, and control requirements, providing all Italian forces with greater flexibility and power projection capabilities—allowing Italy to participate in joint/multinational operations for crisis management and stabilization in areas of strategic interest.

Some facts and events confirm the efficacy of this global approach. Multinational maritime operations carried out in the "Enlarged Mediterranean" as a whole have strengthened the traditional ties amongst NATO navies and improved the fighting capabilities of major NATO Standing Naval Forces (StaNavForLant and StaNavForMed). Joint operations in the Persian Gulf in 1987-88 and 199091 expanded the capabilities of Allied navies to operate cohesively and effectively in new scenarios, and have contributed to establishing direct and invaluable contacts with other regional naval forces. The emergence of a European security and defense identity within NATO has led to the creation of new multinational forces. In fact, to address the region's principal concerns, some European nations have decided to create the European Maritime Force (EuroMarFor) and its land-oriented counterpart, the European Force (EuroFor).

EuroMarFor plays an important role in security and stability developments in the "Enlarged Mediterranean" and commits the participating states—Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal—to contribute warships and amphibious units to a multinational maritime force capable of acting as a common military instrument. In addition to operating in defense of the four nations' own interests, EuroMarFor is able to deploy in support of Western European Union missions or under NATO command. Included in the mandate of EuroMarFor is fulfillment of the entire range of military activities related to crisis management (including humanitarian relief and peace support operations) and combat tasks such as mine clearance, control of sea lines of communication, and amphibious support of land operations. EuroMarFor and EuroFor stand as efforts to strengthen the ability of the Europeans to take the initiative in contingencies where the United States or NATO may choose to abstain from action.

Beginning Implementation of the New Martitime Strategy

Consistent with the defense policy guidelines established by the Joint Defense Staff, the Italian Navy has been deeply involved in different forward presence operations throughout the world, helping to implement the "early and forward" concept. Some examples of these are:

  • Operation Distant Oceans—a world cruise carried out in 1997 by the missile destroyer Luigi Durand de La Penne and the fleet patrol vessel Bersagliere ; the cruise lasted seven months with 51,000 miles traveled, and included 35 port calls in 23 countries.
  • Operation Eastern Seas—a wide program of maritime and naval presence carried out by the frigate Zeffiro and the fleet patrol vessel Artigliere ; this operation lasted about four months and was focused on a scenario including the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea.
  • MedOc/MedOr (Western Med/Eastern Med)—two groups of maritime operations involving various types of warships and submarines that operated in the western and eastern areas of the Mediterranean and in the Black Sea; MedOc/MedOr were mainly aimed at fostering and strengthening cooperation with a number of maritime countries in these sensitive strategic areas. and it is likely that similar operations will continue in the future.

Besides these recent initiatives, the Italian Navy is deeply involved in the implementation of a new concept centered on amphibious warfare. The new concept was directed by NATO military authorities and encompasses the establishment of a multinational amphibious force operating in the Mediterranean. It is called CAFMed (Combined Amphibious Force Mediterranean) and, despite being an on-call force rather than a standing one, it includes amphibious ships and forces mainly from Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, and the United States. Preference toward an on-call force rather than a standing one has been dictated by two major considerations: a navy cannot easily assign an amphibious ship on a permanent basis to a multinational naval force, and CAFMed must have the proper flexibility to be augmented by other amphibious assets coming from naval forces normally operating outside the Mediterranean region and/or outside NATO's integrated military structure. For the new Italian maritime strategy, CAFMed represents a chance for the Marine Militare to perform command and control of complex amphibious operations, and also to project power from the sea in a typical littoral environment. The next evolution should be the employment of the Italian light carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi as an afloat joint command-and-control platform in accordance with the NATO Combined Joint Task Force concept.

The Italian Navy's emphasis on activities outside its traditional areas of operations is increasing the participation of a growing number of its surface ships and submarines in training activities carried out in northern European maritime areas. Italian warships and submarines are now becoming familiar with Joint Maritime Courses and Basic Operational Sea Training (BOST) sessions in British waters, Mine Warfare Operational Sea Training (MOST) at the NATO Mine Warfare School at Ostende, Belgium, and NATO/Partnership for Peace exercises in the Baltic Sea.

A Navy for the 21st Century: Budget, Programs, and Perspectives

Besides forward presence and multinational out-of-area operations requirements that can be met only by a so-called "long reach navy," the Marina Militare is called on to perform many additional tasks strictly related to the maritime environment: rescue and evacuation of Italian citizens caught up in overseas crises, countering the illegal armaments trade, economic exclusion zone surveillance, and countering maritime clandestine migrations.

Even though these tasks could be seen as secondary in comparison to major roles such as forward presence and participation in joint/combined operations, their execution always requires a considerable amount of resources, both in terms of people and vessels. A clear example of this situation is given by the patrol commitments in the Adriatic Sea to counter and monitor clandestine mass migrations from the Balkans and the Middle East. This patrol started in 1996, and is continuing unabated, requiring two or three medium-sized ships each day (corvettes, frigates, etc.). The Adriatic patrol is the successor of NATO-led maritime embargo operations performed by Allied navies in that same area from 1992 to 1996. But it is contributing to an unpredictable wear and tear on the Italian fleet.

Is the Italian Navy ready to fully implement a new maritime strategy that is a logical evolution of a simple and clear cut execution of its traditional/institutional roles? Has the Marina Militare adequate resources to maintain its status as a true "long reach navy" in the future? To respond to these questions, we have to examine the relationship among some peculiar aspects of the navy: manpower and budget trends, fleet capabilities, and new programs. Following a general trend, a manpower level of 40,000 has been established for the Navy. This goal is nearly achieved, and some measures are being implemented to improve educational standards for both officers and petty officers.

The Italian Navy's budget is composed of three major areas (personnel, operations, and procurement), and its evolution across the 1988-1998 decade has not been favorable. Despite manpower reductions, personnel expenditures have almost doubled, while operations expenditures have been reduced thanks to some savings in on shore commands and infrastructures. Procurement expenditures have been reduced, but in recent years a slight, favorable trend reversal is occurring. Nevertheless, across the same period there have been increases in operations and training, with a consequent expansion in optempo (97,000 hours of at sea operations in 1988, versus 147,000 hours in 1998).

Growing operational commitments and budget reductions/stagnation have dramatically increased the rate of utilization of too many ships, submarines, and aircraft—thus provoking a general trend toward block obsolescence in some components of the Italian Navy. Three of the five antiair missile escorts are rapidly approaching the end of their service lives (30 years), while frigates are reaching an average age of about 20 years. Amphibious, coastal, and mine warfare forces are in quite good condition, but in the submarine service there is a ten-year gap between the first and the last boat of the same class. All planned, fixed-wing Harrier V/STOL aircraft are now in service, but the fleet's embarked helicopter force is aging.

There is a clear imbalance among different capabilities that could adversely affect the effectiveness of the fleet as a whole. Bearing in mind Italy's economic conditions, it is, however, necessary to preserve a minimum of capabilities to face future commitments, and avoid the expansion of the gap between (many) old and (a few) new ships. These considerations have led to the modernization program of the Italian Navy, which has forcefully followed a "procurement-to-budget" approach rather than a "procurement-to-requirements/commitments" approach. This program includes some major projects of special interest to the national defense industry:

  • One V/STOL aircraft carrier with amphibious capabilities (given the name Nuova Unita Maggiore , or "new major unit") will replace the old missile cruiser Vittorio Veneto by about 2007.
  • Two missile escorts (Project Horizon, in cooperation with France and the U.K.) will improve antiair warfare capabilities. The first of the class is now slated to enter service in 2004 or 2005, and its combat system could later be upgraded to perform an anti-ballistic missile role.
  • Two air-independent-propulsion equipped submarines (Project U212A, being built in cooperation with Germany) will expand the surveillance and intelligence roles performed by the submarine service. Construction of the first boat will start in 1999 at Fincantieri shipyards in Muggiano/La Spezia, and she will enter service in 2003.
  • In the long term (beyond 2004/2005), the progressive replacement of antisubmarine and antisurface warfare frigates has been planned (probably not on a one-to-one basis), as well as the acquisition of a new class of mine countermeasures vessels.

One cannot predict now if such measures will be enough to allow the Italian Navy to accomplish all of the tasks assigned to it by the political authorities. The major present and future roles of the Italian Navy can be summed up in a couple of lines: participation/conduct of joint/multinational operations in support of peace, and stability and security in the "Enlarged Mediterranean." Thus, the political authorities must be well aware of current and future capabilities of the Marina Militare —as well as its limits—in order to avoid false perceptions that could cause an ill-timed and ill-suited use of naval forces. Through the various editions of its Rapporto , the Italian Navy has been reformulating strategic thinking and has shaped a new maritime strategy. Now it is time that other people do their best to assure adequate means to implement such a strategy within the framework of a coherent and firm foreign and security policy for Italy.

Commander Cosentino currently is assigned to the Naval Armaments Directorate in Rome.


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