Italy’s Air Force Restructures Special Ops Brigade

Sep. 30, 2014 – 11:55AM   |   By TOM KINGTON
New Machinery: The Italian Air Force is due to receive AW101 helicopters for search-and-rescue and special operations missions.
New Machinery: The Italian Air Force is due to receive AW101 helicopters for search-and-rescue and special operations missions. (AgustaWestland)

ROME — Through a shake-up of its bases, the Italian Air Force is streamlining its special operations and rescue operations, trimming costs as new aircraft come into service, and reflecting what officials describe as a shift in the type of mission they are handling in the 21st century.

On Sept. 22, the Air Force’s 1st Brigade for Special Operations moved into new premises at Cervia Air Base on Italy’s Adriatic coast, part of an enlargement of the brigade that saw it take command of the 15th Wing already based at Cervia, which undertakes combat search-and-rescue missions.

Three wings already grouped under the brigade’s command, which are spread around Italy, are set to partly shift personnel and machinery to Cervia.

“We need to be ready and flexible enough for a whole range of operations,” said Gen. Francesco Agresti, the brigade’s new commander. “We’ve got the experience, we just need to configure it better.”

“You have to move in hours, you don’t know where, when or how,” said Gen. Maurizio Lodovisi, head of the Air Force’s Operational Forces Command.

Lodovisi cited the NATO operation in Libya and the continuing instability there as an example. “Libya has shown us we need to be ready to recover pilots and extract civilians,” he said. “This move will give us a huge operational benefit.”

The 1st Brigade oversees the Air Force’s 16th Wing, which is based in southern Italy and has provided force protection for Italy’s air base at Herat in Afghanistan. Also part of the brigade is the 17th Special Operations Wing, which is based at Furbara in central Italy and has operated in Afghanistan. The brigade also oversees the 9th Wing from southern Italy, which operates the AB212 helicopter in support of special operations.

Agresti said components of the wings would gradually relocate to Cervia.

The new addition to the brigade, the 15th Wing, has flown the HH3F helicopter for combat search and rescue and will receive its replacement: the AW101 for special ops and rescue missions. Fifteen have been ordered, with the first due to arrive this year. The 15th Wing also flies 12 AW139 helicopters on rescue missions in Italy.

For Lodovisi, the move means greater efficiencies but also savings. “This is part of a heavy restructuring,” he said. “We are not magicians and we must make sacrifices.”

Despite large cuts to defense spending in recent years, the Air Force is about to receive two new aircraft for special operations use, which officials said the newly beefed-up brigade would be better placed to manage. Apart from the AW101, the service is acquiring the Praetorian C-27J gunship. Rather than a new acquisition, the program adds a modular function to Air Force C-27Js, allowing conversion from tactical transport to gunship and vice versa.

Another argument behind the new set-up is creating synergies between combat assets and civil rescues, Lodovisi said. By absorbing the 15th Wing, the special ops brigade will oversee rescue operations in Italy using the wing’s AW139s. It already oversees similar operations using the 9th Wing’s AB212.

“The new AW101 can also be used for disaster relief operations and also for border control, with some of the helicopters to be based out of Trapani as well as Cervia,” he said.

Trapani in Sicily is close to where more than 100,000 migrants attempted the often fatal sailing from Africa to Europe this year.

The idea of using military assets for civil purposes, in order to better justify defense spending, has also encouraged the Italian Navy to design its new multifunctional vessel to handle disaster relief operations. ■



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