- Italy’s military is focusing on expeditionary capabilities amid rising tension in the Mediterranean.
- The goal is a force that can deploy quickly, operate across domains, and interoperate with allies.
- As part of that effort, the military is seeking new hardware — including F-35s and amphibious ships.
At the end of August, two F-35Bs of the Italian Air Force and Navy conducted an austere runway exercise at an airport on Sardinia’s northwestern coast.
The exercise was meant to test the ability of Italy’s fixed-wing combat aircraft to land on and operate from shorter runways in hostile or semi-permissive environments. It also took place a few months before Italy’s navy is expected to commission its newest amphibious assault ship, ITS Trieste.
The drills and the new ship are the latest signs of the Italian military’s increasing focus on developing expeditionary capabilities — an interest that has grown amid rising tensions across the Mediterranean region.
Protecting NATO’s southern flank
While often overshadowed by Europe’s other major military powers, Italy is an important part of NATO’s defense posture.
Its forces are vital in protecting NATO’s southern flank in the Mediterranean, which Italy defines as stretching from the Persian Gulf across the Sahel to the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.
Roughly 40% of global maritime trade transits the Mediterranean, which is also crisscrossed by dozens of undersea cables that are vital to the flow of information and communications.
Italy and its neighbors are also expected to dramatically increase their imports of oil and gas from North Africa and the Middle East, which flow across the Mediterranean by ship and pipeline, as Europe tries to end its dependency on Russian energy.
The Mediterranean is also central to Italian security. Terrorists and non-state actors operating out of the Middle East and North Africa still pose threats, and Russia’s increased naval presence, supported by its base at Tartus in Syria, forces Italy to be on constant alert.
Italy is also an important part of NATO’s military industrial base. The country is home to world-leading defense firms — including Beretta, Fincantieri, and Leonardo — and produces some of the most capable ships, aircraft, and small arms in service.
With 161,550 troops, Italy has the fifth-largest standing military in NATO, and Rome is the fourth-largest defense spender in Europe, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies. (IISS rankings for Europe do not include Russia, which is placed in a separate region.)
ITS Trieste is the largest warship Italy has built since World War II. It is 803 feet long and displaces over 30,000 tons. It has two command islands, a ski-jump ramp, a deck with a special coating to withstand exhaust from jet engines, and a top speed of 25 knots.
Designed as an amphibious assault ship, Trieste will be able to carry some 600 troops, about a dozen armored vehicles, and multiple landing craft that can enter and exit the ship through a floodable well deck. The ship’s load capacity is about 30 tons, according to its builder, Fincantieri.
Italy’s air force and navy both operate the F-35B, the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing version of the F-35. The navy currently has three F-35Bs in service and the Air Force two. (Italy’s air force also has 14 F-35As in service). Each branch will eventually have 15 F-35Bs that will train and operate together.
Trieste will be the Italian navy’s third carrier. The first, ITS Giuseppe Garibaldi, was commissioned in 1985 and took part in operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya. The second, ITS Cavour, was commissioned in 2008 and is the navy’s current flagship.
Italy’s navy may retire or reconfigure Giuseppe Garibaldi after Trieste is commissioned, which is expected to be early next year. Italian navy and air force F-35s have already operated together aboard Cavour.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine spurred many NATO members, including Italy, to increase their defense budgets. While eyes remain on Ukraine, Italy is keen to point out that the Mediterranean remains worthy of NATO’s attention.
“The marked increase in unfriendly naval activity in the Mediterranean indicates that we should not lose sight of this geopolitical area,” Adm. Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, Italy’s chief of defense, said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May.
Dragone said that the Mediterranean “remains as dangerous today as it always has been and a flashpoint of conflict and regional instability that affects us all.”
Italy plans to meet NATO’s goal of spending 2% of its GDP on defense by 2028, according to Dragone, with spending on its army being the priority.
Italy’s navy also has major modernization plans.
It intends to acquire at least seven Thaon di Revel-class offshore patrol vessels and has begun work on its second Vulcano-class logistic support ship, the first of which was commissioned last year. It also has plans for new destroyers and a replacement for its three San Giorgio-class amphibious transport dock.
The Italians aim to create a military that can deploy quickly, operate in multiple domains, and be interoperable across its own branches and with its allies.
“The Mediterranean is very crowded,” with state and non-state actors both “coming in,” Dragone said. “In the Mediterranean, we depend 92% on data and oil by submarine cables and ducts, and we have to defend them.”