Italy eyes 'black' UAV program as U.S. waffles on arming Predators
Italy is determined to proceed aggressively, with or without its traditional British and French partners, to develop a new armed, medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft, an effort that began in the black world.
The project is proceeding apace in part as a result of U.S. ambivalence about Rome's request to arm its small Predator fleet and also in order to invigorate the domestic industry here. Italy requested permission to weaponize Reaper nearly two years ago, and Washington's silence is “a case that is not very acceptable,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Claudio Debertolis, Italy's secretary general of defense and national armaments director, tells Aviation Week. Debertolis says Rome is in talks with potential partners on a “black” MALE project that would field systems in 2017-18.
Built by San Diego-based, Italy's Predators are slated to finish service by the end of the decade, and the military wants to get a jump on designing a more advanced replacement, according to senior defense and industry officials here. Six of the UAS were bought without an Italian industrial participation agreement not only because General Atomics was not amenable, but also because they were urgently needed in Afghanistan. Italy lacked the time to build its own system.
Officials at the U.S.say that as a matter of policy they will not comment on Italy's specific request. However, they do note that “the transfer of U.S. defense articles and services to allies like Italy enables us to work together more effectively to meet shared security challenges. . . . Italy is a strong partner and NATO ally that significantly contributes to U.S. and NATO-led coalition operations.”
Still, the Predator procurement puts Italy at the whim of the U.S. government in terms of upgrades, a situation the defense establishment here is loath to repeat. Pursuing a weaponized UAV is a “high priority” for Italian forces, says Brig. Gen. Alberto Rosso, logistics branch chief for the. “The U.S. is not the only country [that can] provide those capabilities,” he says. “If we are unable to meet those requirements, we are already looking for alternatives.”
Debertolis notes that even if the U.S. permits the Reaper weaponization now, funding that Italy could have dedicated to project when the request was made has now gone with the economic downturn.
This situation is further soured for Italy because the U.K. has been granted the authority to begin integration of the MBDA Brimstone missile onto the Reaper, using U.S. Air Force assets for the project so as not to interrupt the service of U.K. Reapers for British soldiers in Afghanistan (see page 28). Brimstone is akin to a Hellfire modified with a tandem-charge warhead optimized against armored targets and a millimeter-wave radar. Furthermore, the U.K.'s Reapers already employ the Hellfire and 500-lb. GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb.
Thus, Italy is working with its local industry and soliciting possible foreign partners on the project. It had been in talks with London and Paris on the endeavor, but the Franco-British strategic defense cooperation agreement signed in 2012 has not produced a clear path forward on the MALE UAV. “As far as we know, this [strategic agreement] is not proceeding very well,” saysCEO Guiseppe Giordo. “So we won't wait for France and the U.K. We are working with other countries.”
As chief of Alenia's top aircraft maker headquartered in Turin, Giordo will be integral to the project. “We have a specification. We are working on the preliminary requirements,” he tells Aviation Week. “We want to be engaged on a new generation of MALE applying our technologies and capability that we have developed.” Specifically, Alenia will draw on work it has done with the Sky-X and Sky-Y demonstrators as well as the six-nation, stealthy Neuron combat UAV demonstrator.
Italian officials are mum about which partners are being considered, though Giordo says, “we can have partners not only in Europe but outside Europe.”
A partnership with Israel, which has extensive experience in UAV work, may be under consideration. Israel agreed to purchase 30advanced trainers last year, strengthening the relationship between the two Mediterranean countries. Alenia also has strong ties with Turkey, a possible contender, on various projects, including the U.S.-led .
“We will have a new generation of MALE and we will not stay with the Predator UAV fleet. . . . I am referring to a very coordinated action between the industry and the government,” Giordo says. The new MALE “should be more capable than the Predator, [and] we need to have something [so] that we can be independent from American production.”
Debertolis refers to the project as a “Super MALE,” noting that armed surveillance is a key requirement.
Beyond the MALE project, Giordo agrees with other European executives that there should be a cooperative project in Europe to develop a stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) capable of surveillance and strike. Unlike the MALE project, he says, this combat system should be European in nature. “In the case of the UCAV program, European aeronautical industry should [proceed]. Otherwise there is a danger that . . . we will remain completely in the hands of U.S. companies in terms of new-generation systems.” Such a system would likely be fielded around 2022 at the earliest.
A stealthy UCAV effort is also underway in China. The most advanced program is proceeding in the U.S., where the U.S. Navy's X-47B, made by, achieved the first catapult-launch of a low-observable, tailless UAV from an aircraft carrier last week (see page 16).