Aircraft Carriers in the Mediterranean: the Italian Navy

This is the first of a series of analysis articles on the aircraft carrier in modern Mediterranean navies.

In a recent analysis piece, we argued that while the aircraft carrier is facing increasingly dangerous foes in the form of modern anti-ship ballistic missile systems and ever quieter submarines, it remains a formidable power projection platform. While the effectiveness of aircraft carriers in the 21st century remains unproven in fleet-on-fleet combat scenarios, carriers have been instrumental in a number of military operations where the U.S. and its Western allies were able to project air power onto far-flung battlefields such as Afghanistan and Libya.

It remains to be seen whether in a shifting global order, and given the lessons learned after the ephemeral successes of the Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya wars, single countries or coalitions will continue to be able – or indeed willing – to carry out such operations away from home, especially with more pro-active competition from countries such as China and Russia. Still, the same geopolitical uncertainty seems to only be increasing the desirability of aircraft carriers as an essential asset for countries with regional and global ambitions.

Indeed, amid the instability, it’s clear that the U.S. and its allies want to retain (and in some cases improve) their expeditionary and air power projection capabilities by maintaining aircraft carriers as capital ships in their navies.

The ability to project air power around a fleet, […] away from friendly bases, is a luxury many navies wish to have, but only a handful can afford.

Unsurprisingly then, despite growing threats to these ships and rising tensions as the post-Cold War unipolar order makes room for a multipolar one, the ability to project air power around a fleet in the high seas or from the sea onto land, away from friendly bases, is a luxury many navies wish to have, but only a handful can afford.

It is therefore easy to understand why some European states with regional and global interests operate aircraft carriers, often despite shrinking budgets, unsympathetic media and an indifferent (when not openly hostile) political establishment. In fact, three Mediterranean navies operate flat-top ships with fighter jet carrier air wings, albeit of different capabilities and tonnage. These are France, Spain, and Italy.

Semantics is key here, however, because what aircraft carriers are operated by Italy are really light or pocket carriers when compared to those now operated by the U.S., French and UK navies. Indeed, Italy officially operates two aircraft carriers at the moment, although combined they barely equal the total tonnage of the France’s Charles de Gaulle. Spain’s Juan Carlos I, on the other hand, is officially designated as an amphibious assault ship (LHD) though it can (and does) operate STOVL AV-8B Harrier II fighter jets.

We’ll start this series with the Marina Militare Italiana.

Aircraft Carriers of the Italian Navy

Up until the UK Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers entered service, Italy was the only European country operating more than one aircraft carrier. With the Cavour and its smaller and older sibling Garibaldi, the Marina Militare is one of the world’s few navies that are potentially able to deploy two carrier groups simultaneously. The Garibaldi, now over 30 years old, will soon be replaced by a much larger and more capable LHD (the Trieste) which was designed to operate F-35B aircraft in addition to helicopters, but is more geared toward amphibious operations.

Italy’s navy will only receive fifteen aircraft to replace its fourteen obsolete AV-8B Harrier II’s. While the Trieste, of which we’ll speak in the near future, may be labelled as an LHD, its ability to operate fixed-wing aircraft will also allow it to take the role of light carrier, and flagship, when the Cavour is unavailable.

It’s unclear whether the two ships will carry F-35B’s simultaneously in normal circumstances, as even now they would struggle to both operate the Navy’s Harriers at the same time given the very limited number of available jets. Yet the purchase of more aircraft, or the improbable (though not impossible) transfer of some of the air force’s fifteen F-35B’s to the navy under some sort of inter-force arrangement in the future, would allow the Marina Militare to gain relatively formidable force-projection and expeditionary capabilities by operating two F-35B-capable aircraft carriers.

Another possible scenario is one where Trieste carries four F-35B’s, while Cavour carries some eight, leaving three in the reserves. This would still leave the Marina Militare in a good position, since the Trieste is always going to maintain a focus on amphibious operations, which would be enhanced considerably by the capacity to launch even a handful of F-35B’s.

It appears that, even if the navy were to rely solely on fifteen F-35B’s in the long term, the capabilities granted to the Italian Navy by its current and future flat-top ships mean that, in Europe, only France and the UK can count on better capabilities in the field of carrier operations. Yet, unlike France, Italy can ensure that at least one carrier will always be available and operational while the other undergoes necessary maintenance and upgrades.

Let’s look at Italy’s carriers in more detail.

Italy’s Active Carriers

Giuseppe Garibaldi

The first aircraft carrier to enter service with the Italian navy was the Giuseppe Garibaldi. Described as an ‘aircraft-cruiser’ (incrociatore portaeromobili in Italian), it entered service with the Marina Militare in 1985 without a fixed-wing air wing. 

In fact, it was originally designed to carry out anti-ship (ASW), anti-aircraft (AAW) and anti-submarine (ASW) warfare, but also to cover the role of command ship in combat operations.  

Aircraft Carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi‘s Deck

It was only in the early 1990s that the Garibaldi was equipped with an air wing of AV-8B Harrier II vertical take-off aircraft up to sixteen on paper.

The Garibaldi has an impressive service record for such a small ship, having taken part in a number of combat operations, including operation Allied Force (Kosovo 1999), Enduring Freedom between 2001 and 2002, and operation Unified Protector (Libya 2011) during which she served as command ship between late March and late July. 

Set to be retired from service once the Trieste enters service, the Garibaldi is still in active service and continues to take part in exercises in the Mediterranean equipped as a helicopter carrier.

Cavour

The Cavour is a substantially larger carrier than the Garibaldi, although it still could be considered to be a light or pocket carrier by U.S., French and UK standards. It entered service in 2009 and was recently been refitted and upgraded to operate F-35B fighters, of which it can carry as many as sixteen, although the Navy has purchased only fifteen. It’s likely that the ship will only operate from eight to ten during normal operations, for a daily number of sorties of at least 20.

Cavour Heading to Haiti in 2010

Facing budget cuts and an often hostile political class in Rome, the Italian navy has been forced to highlight the dual-use vocation of the ship, which can also support humanitarian missions. In fact, its very first operation was in support of White Crane, Italy’s relief operation to Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010. 

The Cavour also boasts amphibious assault and RO-RO capabilities and can transport up to 325 marines, as well as an array of light, medium and heavy land vehicles, including the 60 t Ariete Main Battle Tank. 

Cavour is only a light carrier but will punch well above its wait in terms of power projection thanks to its future F-35B air wing. It is also rather heavily armed for a carrier, thanks to weapon systems that include anti-ship and anti-air guns, surface-to-air missiles and decoy launchers.

Cavour’s Weapon Systems
Main Armament2 x Oto Melara 76mm /62 calibre Super Rapido Guns;
3 x Oerlikon Contraves 25mm /80 calibre anti-aircraft guns.
 Auxiliary ArmamentElettronica Spa NETTUNO-4100 ECM System;
EW System (RESM/CESM, RECM)
Missiles4 x 8-cell A43 Sylver surface-to-air missile launchers (MBDA Aster 15 missile);
Counter-Measures2 x ODLS-H/ODLS OTO Melara decoy launching systems
Source: Naval Recognition

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