Shaping a Way Ahead for the Networked Integrated Force: An Italian Air Force Perspective

By Robbin Laird

The Italian Air Force is part of the broader European defense transition in which the shift from the land wars to direct European defense is underway. The Italians have not only bought two variants of the F-35 but build the aircraft in Italy as well as delivering aircraft from their factory to the Netherlands.

The IAF and the Italian Navy both operate F-35s with the challenge still being working integration between both services as well. The Italian Navy trained last year off the East Coast of the United States and did initial exercises between the ITS Cavour and the USS Gerald R. Ford.

In addition, Italy flies the Eurofighter as a key combat aircraft and has worked integratability between the Eurofighter and the F-35 as well as having spearheaded enhanced integration of Eurofighters within Europe itself.

Lieutenant General Aurelio Colagrande, Italian Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff, started his presentation to the Williams Foundation seminar by underscoring that although Italy and Australia are geographically far apart, their work on airpower modernization is not.

This is how he put it: “Even though we are on the opposite sides of the world, therefore apparently very far away and with a different viewpoint on space and time, in the operational environment, Australia and Italy are closer and similar than ever before. We fly some similar aircraft, like the C-27 and the F-35. We’ve been in the same coalition in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

“The entire world is changing faster and faster so that a regional issue now become immediately part of the geopolitical landscape…. From a global perspective, we act in the same realm. As air forces, we operate in a domain strongly dependent on technology in order to deliver air power rapidly and everywhere.”

I have spent a great deal of time with Italian Air Force when they were first procuring the F-35 and the head of the Italian Air Force at the time, highlighted how acquiring of the F-35 would drive significant cultural change in the IAF, an argument very similar to what Air Marshal Brown was making at the same time in Australia.

This is how Lt. General Preziosa put it in a 2015 interview with me:

“The F-22 and the F-35 are called fifth generation aircraft, but really the F-35 is the first airplane built for the digital age, we are rapidly moving from the dog-fight concept to the data-fight evolution of the broad utilization of air power. It was conceived in and for that age, and is built around the decision tools in the cockpit and is in fact a “flying brain.”  And that makes it different from other aircraft. It is a multi-tasking aircraft, and fits well into the I-phone age. Other aircraft – with the exception of the F-22 – are built to maximize out as multi-mission aircraft, which execute tasks sequentially and directed to do so.

“The F-35 fleet thinks and hunts and can move around the mission set as pilots operate in the battlespace and leverage the data fusion system. It is a battlespace dominance aircraft; not a classic air superiority, air defense or ground attack aircraft. It changes the classic distinctions; confuses them and defines a whole new way to look at a combat aircraft, one built for the joint force age as well. The Army and the Navy will discover, as the F-35 fleet becomes a reality, how significant the F-35 is for their combat efforts.”

In his remarks to the Williams Foundation seminar, Lieutenant General Colagrande provided an update on this perspective based on the experience of the past several years of the IAF and the F-35. “We immediately felt the need to generate a national plan to evolve with the entire organization in a fifth-generation Italian air force, where consolidated competence, new scales, different mindset, modern airmen are all vital ingredients to effectively perform an entire set of new capabilities together with legacy system.

“In this air force evolutional journey, we face new challenges that we are trying to manage with new and innovative solutions, finding new partners and associates. Of course, we are just at the beginning of our trip, but the initial outcomes are definitely reassuring, and the quality of our approach seems just right.”

He argued that the challenge facing an operational air force is to be able to “plug and fight” with the systems they have. As he noted: “New capabilities have never been ‘plug and fight’. It is difficult to gain rapid full operational advantage from a multitude of new capabilities because to fully exploit them, it is necessary to be equipped with greater technical competence as contemporary weapons systems are much more capable than those in the past.

“This condition highlights more than ever how the human being is the weakest part of the equation. Since to fully exploit a new weapon system, there is a need for a specific dedicated, progressive training to the end users. To that end, interpretability and collaboration are key elements in order to be effective.”

He then went on to discuss a very interesting Eurofighter integration effort which has happened under the radar of public recognition but suggestive of the kind of force integration efforts among allies which are critical to be able to fight more effectively tonight.

Lieutenant General Colagrande highlighted this development in the following manner: “Plug and Fight is a name of a successful endeavor that the German Air Force conducted together with our British friends of the Royal Air Force and with us.

“Within the NATO and as air policing framework in Europe, the German Air Force, Royal Air Force and Italian Air Force, are now able to operate in a completely mixed Eurofighter squadron, sharing not only aircraft or spare parts, the so-called material component, but also operational, maintenance, logistic procedures, and more important the will to succeed in doing operations together.

“This may appear as an easy operation, but it was actually the end state of a very intensive journey started a few years ago with the launch of the European Typhoon Interoperability program. German Air Force, Royal Air Force and Italian Air Force worked out to put in place technical arrangements, to write handbooks for flying ops, ground ops, spare parts management, and maintenance, and so on.

“We needed to train on a regular basis to stay proficient in performing the mission. Indeed, thanks to this initiative, at the beginning of March this year, the German Air Force and Italian Air Forces have successfully supported together a real air policing operation in Romania. And we will probably do the same in the next month with our UK friends.”

This Eurofighter interoperability effort has been and is indeed a major challenge.

But doing so can obviously deliver more significant coalition capability rathe rather than simply having nations operating the “same” aircraft but actually not being able to integrate those aircraft into a cohesive combat capability.

I first visited the European Air Group based at High Wycombe in 2014 and the focus of that first meeting was on 4th-5th generation integration. I went back over the next few years, and saw how his coalition building group was broadening their efforts to include meeting the challenge of Eurofighter integration.

The European Typhoon interoperability program to which Colagrande referred is indeed the EAG program. During a 2016 visit to the EAG we discussed the European Typhoon interoperability effort being led by the EAG. This was what I wrote at the time about the effort:

“The session was led by Brigadier General de Ponti, Deputy Director, of the European Air Group and joined by the “drivers” of the ETIP (Euro Typhoon Interoperability Project) as well as organizers of exercise efforts to shape a new approach, namely Lt. Col. Jacobo Lecube of the Spanish Air Force and Lt Col. Marco Schiattioni from the Italian Air Force and Chief of Staff Col. Stephane Pierre, of the Belgian Air Force.

“The overall focus of the effort is upon shaping a more common fleet approach among Eurofighter nations. Although four nations came together to build a common airplane, the planes have been used by four different air forces with limited overlap in standards and operating practices. As the Euro-Typhoon is clearly a key element for the future of European airpower and with the coming of the F-35 to Europe, this makes little sense.

And what the European Air Group is focused upon are practical ways to shape more common fleet approaches among the air forces, which fly Euro-Typhoon. Also, shaping a common template in doing Baltic air policing in which Eurofighter/Typhoons are becoming a frequent asset in executing the mission provides an obvious opportunity to find ways to shape common procedures and support approaches as well.

The problem was simply put by one of the participants: “When an Italian Eurofighter lands on a German base, it cannot use the ground support equipment or change a tire, because the standards are different. These are procedural issues, which may make sense in terms of national norms but not in terms of common fleet operations. Through this project we seek to end differences which get in the way of common operational support.”

According to BG de Ponti: “The Eurofighter-Typhoon project is an important effort for our air forces. It is about the co-evolution of Typhoon with the shaping of a 4th-5th generation integrated force. It is two prongs of shaping more effective European airpower. It is a building blocks approach to shaping evolving capabilities.”

Such an effort is what force integration among allies requires. But the better outcome is to shape common approaches at the outset of building new platforms and doing so with common C2 and ISR connectivity as well, if indeed the integrated networked force is to have its full impact on warfighting and deterrence.

Lieutenant General Colagrande underscored the importance of being to leverage new capabilities throughout the combat force and this required significant emphasis on training and innovation in force operations as well.

This is how he characterized how the Italian Air Force is addressing this challenge: “We soon initiated an operational testing and evaluation process that now includes both the A and B variant for novel interoperability. We participated with the F-35  air policing in Iceland. We proved our air power expeditionary concept together with our Italian Navy and the British ones. We launched a very challenging operational training infrastructure program in Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea where we have lot of airspace, air to air, air to ground, EW and lots of test ranges and good weather throughout the year.

“Furthermore, in Sardinia, we are setting up our international flight training school where we will train in the phase four advanced training, our future fifth generation pilots. Within the OTI framework, we are investing in connectivity network in order to offer a real effective advanced training.

“And through it, we intend to achieve one of the most challenging objectives, the integration between legacy and new generation weapon system for exploiting the main operational output of the fifth-generation assets that we believe is the ability to be task enablers and force multipliers.

“And we also conducted a pure fifth generation event, the Falcon Strike 2021. The first major European exercise for fifth generation aircraft, but not just with them, but for them, in a highly contested and congested scenario, a multinational coalition from United States Air Force, United States Marine Corps, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, Israeli and Italian Air Force F-35s participated with the exercise.

“Focusing on fifth generation requirements, testing new sea-basing approaches to air operation, exploring new fifth generation rules of engagement that allow a high level of delegation of decision-making to the lowest possible level, the cockpit. All small steps of course, but all pieces of an overall increased level of performance for the entire air force.”

He highlighted the cooperation in the UK-led Tempest program as one element of the way ahead for the Italian Air Force as well. “The next generation fighter will not be just a simple aircraft. It will be a system of systems with very strong and secure connectivity. It must be conceived through an open system architecture to accommodate the required agility, the future technological developments and better compensate for any changes or updates to the operational requirements.”

He provided a significant cautionary note as well in his presentation.

The cutbacks in defense in Europe have been significant and have left Europe more vulnerable than is prudent. “The Italian Air Force has witnessed a significant reduction in aircraft numbers over the past decades. We developed the idea that greater quality may compensate for less quantity, but quality cannot substitute quantity. Technological quality advantage allows us to achieve the superiority in the operating area of a permissive scenario.

“But such an approach is not an applicable paradigm in the military comparison with a peer-to-peer or near-to-peer competitor who accounts for hundreds of military assets, or when simultaneous commitments or more than one operation operate far away from each other.

“In other words, mass still has its importance as we are learning by the last updates coming from the east European flank. Going back to quality versus quantity concept, we should think about the fact that quantity is by itself a quality.

“The technological trap mechanism even more obvious when it comes to weaponry. State of the art weapons are so expensive to develop, acquire, and in many cases, integrate, that you end up buying too few of them, depleting the stockpile below a minimum acceptable level, thus creating a serious gap when it comes to operations. Once again, it is evident that mass enables either by a lower technological level or with new industrial or commercial solutions for greater combat capability.”

Lieutenant General Aurelio Colagrande, Italian Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff

Lieutenant General Aurelio Colagrande was born in L’Aquila on 8 October 1962. He attended the Air Force Academy from 1981 to 1985 and graduated as military pilot in 1986 at the European NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) in Sheppard AFB – TX, USA.

In 1987, Lt Gen COLAGRANDE was assigned to the 2nd Wing in Treviso and in 1989 was moved to the 51st Wing in Istrana where he was appointed as OPS Chief and later on as 103rd Squadron Commander. Between 1995 and 1999, he flew several flying sorties over the Balkan Airspace collecting more than 70 flight hours.

In July 2000, he was appointed to the Logistic Department of the Italian Air Staff in Rome and later, in 2002, moved to the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office in Washington DC (USA), as Italian National Representative.

From July 2006 until September 2007, he was back to the Logistic Department of the Italian Air Staff as Head of C4 ISTAR Branch and Chairman of the Italian JSF WG. From 2007 to 2009, he was appointed as 6th Wing Commander in Ghedi, after this assignment he returned to Rome, at the Secretariat General of Defence and National Armaments Directorate as Chief of the Aeronautical Programs Office.

From 2011 to 2013 he was appointed as the 46th Air Brigade Commander in Pisa, following this period he was assigned to the Air Operational Command in Rome as Deputy Chief of Staff, assuming later on the Chief position until March 2019.

From 20 March 2019 to 11 January 2022, he was the Commander of the Air Education and Training Command.

As of 12 January 2022, Lt.Gen. Colagrande is the Italian Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff. Lt.Gen. Colagrande has a University Degree in Aeronautical Sciences and a Master in International Studies.