The March 2015 Proceedings posed an interesting question of naval commanders from around the world: “What role do you see for partnering with other navies to meet your goals?” I would rephrase this as follows: “What opportunities exist for partnership and cooperation between the Italian and the U.S. navies and among other navies sharing the same goals or interests?” The answer should first address the strategic and tactical goals of the involved parties. To do this, we must review some recent facts and events.
The Wider Mediterranean
Italy’s wealth and growth are based on sea trade. Our nation depends heavily on raw materials imported almost entirely by sea and relies on the sea to export its domestically manufactured goods. Since the end of the Cold War, the Italian Navy has focused its attention on the so-called “wider Mediterranean,” a vast, mainly maritime region that reflects the importance of the sea to Italy’s trade. But it is also important to grasp the region’s political value to Italy’s foreign policy. The area encompasses three adjacent seas (the Med, the Black Sea, and the Red Sea), four choke points (the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, and the Strait of Hormuz), and two “hot spots” (the Gulf of Aden/Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf). It represents a vital link connecting Italy with many coastal countries of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Further, the phrase “wider Mediterranean” refers not only to maritime areas but also to their littoral inlands, including many unstable and dangerous territories. Its center is of course the Mediterranean Sea itself, probably the most unstable maritime area in the world—as recent events in Libya, Syria, and adjacent countries have bitterly confirmed.
Italy has long maintained a massive presence in the Mediterranean Sea because its main concern remains the political stability of the basin, which is threatened by two major factors: the instability or failure of several coastal nations and the flood of undocumented immigrants and refugees from war zones or famine in Africa to Europe, looking for relief on Italy’s southern shores. These factors are intensified by the threat of Islamic terrorism, which has ramified among several countries close to Italy.
The maritime dimension of that threat and its impact on Italy’s security mean that the Italian Navy continuously patrols not only the central Mediterranean, but also participates in the maritime security-based, NATO-led Operation Active Endeavour, which has been conducted throughout the Mediterranean Sea since 2002. Libya remains under the greatest scrutiny because it is a failed state, in which two political groups and ISIS-sponsored terrorist militias struggle for power. The area remains unstable—and lies barely 200 miles from Italian shores.
The Italian Navy is committed to preventing the infiltration of terrorists into Italy. In fact, the breakup of the Libyan government in 2011 drastically increased the flow of immigrants and forced the navy in 2013 to cancel nearly all its training activities and divert all its resources into a massive search-and-rescue effort, Operation Mare Nostrum. During this ten-month operation, Italian air naval forces and other maritime police organizations rescued more than 150,000 people. Today, under the name Operation Triton, the search-and-rescue effort continues and is conducted by Frontex, the European Union’s (EU) border security agency.
Beyond the Mediterranean, the Italian Navy plays an active role in the Western Indian Ocean in antipiracy operations. Since 2005, at least one Italian warship has been present either in the NATO-led task force Operation Ocean Shield or in the EU-led task force, Operation Atalanta. In several instances, an Italian warship—either a missile destroyer or an amphibious assault ship—acted as flagship of Ocean Shield or Atalanta, demonstrating the leading role Italy plays in combating maritime piracy. Closer to home, an Italian Navy operation, Mare Sicuro (“secure sea”), is under way in the southern-central Mediterranean, involving several warships and submarines. These commitments and activities have been largely unplanned, causing an unprecedented wear-and-tear on the Italian fleet.
The U.S. Navy’s Modified Focus
After 50 years of continuous and stable presence in the region, the U.S. Navy has progressively shifted its focus elsewhere. Two ground wars in Southwest and Central Asia and the policy guidance for the rebalance in the Pacific have drastically changed the terms of the naval equation in the Eastern Hemisphere. The 6th Fleet—a powerful political and military tool in the Mediterranean’s political dynamics—seems somewhat diminished in the context of the United States’ realignment of its worldwide fleet, whose shrinking force has been dictated primarily by financial and political circumstances. The deployment of four U.S destroyers at Rota, Spain, tasked with deterring countries that rely on ballistic missiles to pursue their objectives, may not be sufficient to deter others from pursuing their ambitions. Recall that in September 2013, U.S. naval forces deploying off Syria were blocked at the last minute from stopping Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president who had used chemical weapons against his own people.
Further, the U.S. military campaign against ISIS seems too weak to block the expansion of terrorism in the Middle East and the adjacent regions, including Mediterranean nations. The U.S. military’s shift from the Mediterranean is manifesting, for example, in the permanent basing of U.S. warships in Singapore and Bahrain, while forward deployments in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, including the Philippines, has steadily increased. The spring 2015 revision of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines appears to be another way for the United States to enhance its naval presence and involvement in the Western Pacific and to anticipate potential crisis scenarios stemming from the dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands. Finally, the show of force inside the nine-dash line of the South China Sea has put another strain on U.S. naval forces.
Thus, the refocus of U.S. forces in the Pacific theater, although important and badly needed elsewhere, may lead to a dangerous imbalance in other equally important geostrategic theaters. In 2014 a crisis front opened up in the Black Sea, when Russia seized and annexed Crimea and pro-Russian separatists started a civil war in the eastern Ukraine. (This echoed the conflict in the former Soviet state of Georgia in 2008, when pro-Russian separatists waged a war in which Russian military forces participated, with support from naval units.) Thus the Black Sea has become a new area of confrontation between pro-Western countries, Georgia and Ukraine, and Russia, whose aggressive thrust has created anxieties among many NATO Eastern European nations. After all, it is not a novelty that Russia should pursue a grand strategy aimed at resurrecting its former status as a great power. A tool of this strategy is a naval buildup aimed at reinforcing the Russian Navy’s Baltic and the Black Sea fleets and the re-establishment of a naval squadron which, according to one official declaration, would be permanently deployed in the Mediterranean to safeguard the Russian interests there.
A recent demonstration of this Russian naval “renaissance” has been the cruise-missile attacks against ISIS executed by warships based in the Caspian Sea and a submarine operating in the eastern Mediterranean. In short, it seems that the Russian Mediterranean squadron will be back, while Russian naval and air forces are firmly deployed in Syria. The ongoing crisis between Turkey—a NATO nation—and Russia adds another threat to stability to the whole picture.
Although maritime security issues—especially in the Mediterranean—have a direct impact on almost all European nations, so far the EU has done very little to address them. A European Security and Defence Policy has been in place for 20 years, and in June 2014 the European Council adopted the Maritime Security Strategy. In practical terms, this has meant that EU-led military forces have, and are, carrying out low-intensity operations, including Operation Atalanta. Thus, political announcements have been followed by low-intensity practical military actions.
The southern Mediterranean is not only the maritime border of some southern European countries, including Italy—but also the maritime border of all Europe. In the past few years the Italian Navy has been almost alone in facing a flood of immigrants and trying to avoid a huge loss of human life. Only after a tragic sequence of events caused the loss of nearly 1,000 lives did the EU launch a true surveillance, patrol, and search-and-rescue multiphased operation—EUNAVOR MED/Sophia—which Italy leads and is carried out by a European naval force. However, only some European countries have deployed their vessels in the Mediterranean, and it is unclear how long the mission will last and how effective will be.
As a NATO and EU nation with a strong maritime dimension, Italy closely monitors the events in the wider Mediterranean. This focus is justified by at least two factors. First, Italy has a strategic imperative to ensure the secure flow of energy and raw materials from the Mediterranean into the Italian economy. Second, there is an apparent NATO vacancy in southern Europe. An example is the transfer to Northwood, United Kingdom, of the command and control for all NATO maritime operations carried out by NATO forces in the European theater and adjacent seas. (The Northwood-based NATO Maritime Command—formerly based in Naples—also is responsible for counterpiracy operations in the western Indian Ocean carried out under the framework of Ocean Shield.)
It is true that during the latest peak of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis in the Black Sea, the NATO Standing Naval Maritime Group 2 and several U.S. warships entered the Black Sea, showed the flag, and executed training with the local NATO navies. It appears, however, that these moves have not altered the Kremlin’s plan for safeguarding its strategic interests in Ukraine, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean.
Thus, some questions remain. How do we fill the gap in the Mediterranean left by the downsizing of the U.S. 6th Fleet? How do Italy and the United States cope with contingencies and achieve the strategic objectives of both our navies? Partnership and cooperation are the logical choices, especially if they are part of a wider framework in which other nations share the same objectives.
There exist three levels of potential partnership and cooperation: strategic, operational, and technical/industrial.
The strategic naval partnership remains embedded in the NATO framework and includes other NATO maritime nations in southern Europe. Initiatives in this field may include the temporary deployment of one carrier strike group (CSG) in the Mediterranean and the inclusion of one or two Italian combatants. Initially, a CSG could perform training activities, from low- to high-intensity tasks, and later perform real missions, if required. Such a partnership among the U.S. Navy, the Italian Navy, and other NATO navies could be sufficient to deter threats and intervene if deterrence fails.
At the operational level, a pattern of development includes the enhancement of cross training between Italian and U.S. warships and embarked aircraft. Bearing in mind that by the end of 2016 Italian naval aviation is planning to introduce the F-35B Lightning II on board its aircraft carrier Cavour, we can anticipate a program of permanent exchange between our nations’ aircraft and pilots, operating from the Cavour and U.S. F-35B-capable warships and from on shore as well. In addition, the U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella is strategically positioned in the Mediterranean to become a temporary forward-advanced base for Italian and U.S. F-35Bs involved in training and real missions. A similar pattern of operation partnership may involve, in a middle-term future, the MV-22 Osprey. The Italian Navy has a long-term requirement to operate Ospreys. A U.S. Osprey carried out test landings on board the Cavour, possibly commencing a new era for the Italian naval aviation and initiating better cooperation on the deployment and use of Ospreys in the Mediterranean. In fact, in 2015 the multipurpose amphibious assault ship LH-D Juan Carlos I embarked a detachment of four U.S. Ospreys during during NATO exercise Trident Juncture.
Opportunities for further operational cooperation may emerge during regular cycles of exercises between Italian submarines and U.S. naval forces. In 2008 the Italian submarine Salvatore Todaro deployed to the U.S. East Coast to participate in training and exercises with U.S. antisubmarine forces. Such activities could be repeated on a regular basis, for example routinely deploying a U.S. CSG in the Mediterranean, this time facing two or more Italian submarines embedded in a sort of submarine “aggressor squadron.” It is not difficult to imagine a complex scenario in which Italian and U.S. F-35Bs cross-operate from the Cavour and the USS America (LHA-6), Italian and U.S. Marines project power ashore using Ospreys, and Italian submarines provide intelligence to CSG- or expeditionary strike group-based assets.
A naval technical and industrial partnership between Italy and the U.S. might be judged unachievable. A naval partnership’s greatest enemy lies in the industrial policies of the nations that comprise it, which tend to favor their own maritime and industrial interests. Therefore, opportunities for cooperation are scarce, and the competition for export to more appealing markets, mainly Middle East and Southeast Asia, is intense. This logic applies also in the United States, where the naval construction market is closed to European shipbuilding companies. However, given one of the U.S. Navy’s recent requirements, a new approach could prove interesting. As is widely known, the former littoral combat ship (LCS) evolved as a frigate, whereas the definition of the requirements for a new development is expected by 2016.
Sharing Ideas for a Better Fleet
On this side of the Atlantic, the current Italian fleet is mostly based on a naval law dating to 1975. Forty years of continuous operations and few programs for new construction have caused a dangerous “block obsolescence” that recently has been remedied with the approval of a funding scheme to start three new naval programs to renew the fleet. The main program for new Italian warships involves a class of multipurpose offshore patrol vessels (MOPVs) aimed at gradually replacing several classes of frigates, corvettes, and patrol vessels currently in service. In practice, the MOPVs are modern frigates—good examples of modern warships designed to perform a wide spectrum of missions because of their remarkable modularity and flexibility. They were designed according to several configurations. The first batch of the class for the Italian Navy will include seven ships, with the delivery of the first MOPV planned in 2020.
These units will benefit from an extensive use of the modularity concept. Some characteristics are worth mentioning: They will be capable of achieving high speed (34 knots), long endurance (6,000 miles at 15 knots), resilience and seaworthiness, maneuverability, modularity, and high level of integration/automation. A peculiar feature of the MOPVs is the so-called “integrated” cockpit-like bridge embedded in the forward superstructure and manned by a pilot and a co-pilot who can navigate during routine operations. The Italian MOPVs are 136 meters long (447 feet) and 16 meters (52.5 feet) broad in the beam. Complement will include 90 personnel, but accommodation will be available for up to 200 people. Armament will include one 127-mm (5-inch) gun with guided ammunitions, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, and aviation facilities for helicopters and/or unmanned aerial vehicles. With their advanced design and technical features, the future Italian MOPVs ships will meet today’s requirements of a modern navy in various scenarios.
The U.S. Navy should seriously consider the MOPV’s design as a suitable candidate for its LCS/frigate program. After all, the Freedom-class LCSs are being built in a U.S. shipyard that is part of Fincantieri Marine Group of Marinette, Wisconsin—the same builder of Italian MOPVs. It should not be difficult to rearrange the Italian design to meet U.S. Navy frigate requirements, especially in terms of lethality, survivability, reduced crew, and affordability. A U.S. frigate built according to Italian MOPVs features will benefit from a continuous flow of operational and technical information to be shared between the Italian and the U.S. navies, thus contributing to enhance strategic, operational, and industrial cooperation.
In the past ten months, the strategic and geopolitical situation in the Mediterranean and adjacent seas has changed drastically. It is imperative that all interested parties, particularly the Italian and U.S. navies, implement the necessary steps to maximize partnership and cooperation. Several opportunities exist to do so, to dissuade and deter threats, mitigate risks, and preserve security and stability. The tools are available—the political will should allow making their best use.