As part of Italy’s efforts to create a joint operational F-35B force integrating Air Force and Navy, a refueling exercise involving the fifth-generation stealth fighters was conducted in a remote and rugged environment.
Two F-35B STOVL aircraft from each of these services took part in the training exercise at the Italian Air Force’s Pantelleria Airport Detachment on January 27, 2022. Pantelleria is an Italian island southwest of Sicily, in the Mediterranean Sea.
The exercise was aimed at integrating the F-35s of the Air Force and Navy, and developing expeditionary capability from a ground base through the use of an “austere” airfield unsuitable for conventional take-off and landing aircraft.
“Today’s training event is fully part of the development process of joint forces, strongly supported by the Minister of Defence Lorenzo Guerini, and has sanctioned a further step forward in the integration process of fifth-generation multirole aircraft,” the Ministry of Defense said on January 27.
The exercise was attended by the Chief of Staff of the Italian Defense, Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, Chief of Staff of the Italian Navy, Admiral Enrico Credendino and Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force, Air Squad General Luca Goretti.
Two F-35Bs landed at the austere base of Pantelleria, refueled on the ground by an ITAF KC130J tanker aircraft while keeping their engines running (Hot Pit Refueling). The mission was carried out using the ALARP (Air Landed Aircraft Refueling Point) system, which can offer simultaneous ground refueling of up to four aircraft while using fuel from the KC-130J’s Rapid Ground Refuel, or using the SPRP (Single Point Refueling Panel) system.
The F-35Bs promptly took flight after the operation was done to join two ITAF Eurofighter Typhoons in a Composite Air Operation (COMAO) over Calabria, southern Italy.
An F-35B Joint Force
Italy will not emulate the British model, which means there will be no Lightning force with a joint squadron flying and maintaining F-35Bs.
According to Admiral Dragone, the Italian Defense Ministry’s goal is to acquire expeditionary capability from land and sea. All F-35Bs can be deployed under the operational command of the Air Force or the Navy, reporting to the Chief of Defense, depending on the reference domain.
The goal is to establish an inter-force and multi-domain air expeditionary capability, suited for the development of a contemporary military organization based on the F-35B STOVL, that will enable both armed forces to capitalize on the expertise gained by their fighter squadrons. It also allows for pilot exchanges between the Air Force and the Navy, as well as the housing of all F-35Bs at a single location.
The Air Force and the Navy will get 15 F-35Bs each, bringing the total number of F-35Bs in Italy to 30. In addition, 60 F35-As are also ordered for the Air Force. The Navy and the Air Force have been at odds over the procurement of F-35Bs for a long time.
Earlier, Adm. Luigi Binelli Mantelli, the former Italian Navy Chief of Staff, wrote an open letter to Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini (published by La Stampa newspaper) outlining all the disadvantages of allocating the STOVL jets to the Italian Air Force. The retired Admiral believes that the F-35B should be acquired exclusively by the Marina Militare.
General Goretti now underlined how the Air Force and Navy are currently on a “honeymoon”, a testimony of the good relations between the two armed forces.
The Air Force is procuring F-35Bs to replace the AMX, which will be retired this year. The Navy will replace its AV-8B+ Harrier II, whose retirement is planned for 2024-2025. Both services will receive 15-15 F-35B fighter jets. The F-35s are currently rolling off the assembly line at Cameri in northern Italy, which is currently producing aircraft for both Italy and the Netherlands.
On July 30, 2021, while sailing in the Gulf of Taranto, an F-35B Lightning II belonging to the Italian Navy landed for the first time on the ITS Cavour aircraft carrier.
The combined exercise onboard the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour and the British carrier Queen Elizabeth kicked off the F-35 integration work in the Italian armed forces.