On November 30, the chief of the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI, Italian air force) announced that the service had achieved initial operational capability (IOC) with the Lockheed Martin F-35A.
"Today is an important day for the Italian air force,” said Lieutenant General Alberto Rosso. “With the achievement of the IOC, we are the first in Europe to have a real operational capability with a fifth-generation aircraft.” Italian F-35s are now ready to join NATO and allied operations.
General Rosso made the announcement during the fourth iteration in 2018 of the Tactical Leadership Program, a course that brings together experienced crews and tactical aircraft from a variety of NATO air arms to conduct exercises that hone mission planning and leadership. TLP typically includes airborne early warning and ISR assets and this year involved E-3 AWACS aircraft from the NATO AEW Force and Italy’s own IAI/Gulfstream E-550A CAEW aircraft. The inclusion of the F-35As represented the first time that a fifth-generation aircraft had participated in the event. “It’s an important day also for the TLP course,” commented General Rosso. “It represents the first concrete integration between fourth- and fifth-generation systems, and is an important opportunity to improve and develop, together with other nations, the essential skills that air power must be able to express at international level.”
The AMI is the fourth service to declare IOC for the F-35, following the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps, and Israel. Italy received its first F-35 on December 12, 2016, the first recipient of the aircraft outside of the United States. Currently, the nation has taken delivery of 11 F-35s, comprising two F-35As that are conducting training at Luke AFB, Arizona, a single F-35B that is in the U.S. for trials, and eight operational F-35As at Amendola in Italy. The latter are operated by 13° Gruppo (squadron) of the 32° Stormo (wing).
Since receiving its first aircraft, the 13° Gruppo has worked intensively to achieve IOC. In October 2017 the unit participated in the large-scale Vega exercise, during which two aircraft covered an amphibious landing. F-35s have undertaken missile firing campaigns at the range at Decimomannu in Sardinia. Following an intense period of training in scramble techniques and operating with other ground- and air-based air defense assets, IOC in the air defense role was declared on March 1, 2018, 13° Gruppo aircraft being integrated into Italy's Servizio di Sorveglianza dello Spazio Aereo (SSSA, airspace surveillance service), armed with AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM missiles. In June this year, 13° Gruppo deployed F-35As to Rivolto for Operation Lightning, during which they flew missions over the Polygon range in Germany as part of the campaign to achieve IOC in the air-to-ground role.
Italy has plans to acquire 60 F-35As and 30 F-35Bs, the latter to be split between the AMI and Italian navy. However, future Italian F-35 purchases toward that goal are far from certain in the current political and economic climate.
Elsewhere in Europe, the F-35 has been bought by Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the UK. There is a major opportunity in Germany, where the F-35 is in a two-horse race to replace the Luftwaffe’s 85 aging Tornado aircraft beginning in 2025. The F-35’s fifth-generation stealth characteristics make it a strong candidate, but there is a political drive to buy more Eurofighter Typhoons, which would maintain many jobs in Germany. A split purchase may be a possibility, with a decision expected soon, possibly this month. Another opportunity for the F-35 is Finland’s HX competition to replace the country’s F/A-18 Hornets. The type is short-listed alongside the Rafale, Typhoon, Gripen, and Super Hornet for selection in 2021.