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Aircraft carriers, naval aircraft and austerity

Rome, Italy - The project F-35 Lightning II is dying, the Harrier in retirement: what will Italy embark on the "Garibaldi" and on the "Conte di Cavour"?


(WAPA) - In recent weeks several media reported the withdrawal from the Libyan-Mediterranean war theater of the aircraft carrier "Garibaldi" (displacement of 13,000 tons, daily expense of 135,000 euros), which had been operating for about three months against the Gaddafi forces with six AV8-B Plus "Harrier II" fighter jets (no longer in production).

The "Garibaldi" was replaced by the support ship "San Giusto" (8,000 tons, three helicopters on average), while the navy's lack of contribution to the operations by the AV8-B Plus was compensated for by the Air Force "Tornado". At the end, it was published that these substitutions would have resulted in a cost advantage, which we quote with all the reserves, generally indicated as 90 million, resulting from the difference between the 42 million spent on the "Garibaldi" between March 18 and June 30, 2011 and 58 million planned expenditure from July to September 2011 for the replacement at that carrier.

These figures, pending confirmation and details, would require the Supreme Defence Council to make some reflection considering both Italy's current economic climate and the requirements needed by the carrier to fulfill its activities. The "Garibaldi" has been in service since 1985 and most probably needs a different (and expensive) refurbishment work, while the original fleet of eighteen AV8-B Plus (of which two-seater training aircraft), acquired after 1992 and cost 30 million dollars each (apart from installation charges in Italy...) lacking two private aircraft destroyed in flight accidents, is no longer considered adequate to the needs, considering the existence of our second aircraft carrier, the "Conte di Cavour "(cost 1,100 million euros, in service since 2009, with 27,000 tons displacement and has the capacity of eight AV8-B plus and a number of helicopters).

To complete the scenario, it would be useful to recall that at the time (the 90's) when the Cavour had been designed, the great ship had raised many objections from the navy. It was reported that even when the ship was docked in port it had the same cost as that of acquiring an offshore patrol vessel and, when in 2010 it was sent in aid of Haiti's victims, devastated by the earthquake, the diversion in Brazil, officially motivated to send on humanitarian aid for earthquake victims, actually tended to publicise the ship hoping that Brazilians would eventually buy it: this never happened.

Apart from this rumor, though significant for some aspects, the basic problem that arises is ensuring an acceptable operational capacity of the navy's air component on board (not only the capabilities of helicopters) until 2014-2016, when the twenty-two F-35B "Lightning II" were expected to enter service commissioned for Italian aircraft carriers (at a cost of more than 183 million dollars per aircraft). But apparently things are not so simple.

As already explained, the problem for the navy was (and still is) to ensure a minimum of two operational aircraft carriers ("Conte di Cavour" and "Garibaldi") with the existing sixteen combat aircraft (including trainers) AV8- B Plus, in service since 1991 - '96, and are no longer being produced, until scheduled deliveries for 2014-2015 of the twenty-two F-35B "Lightning II", commissioned by Italy to Lockheed Martin (at a cost of more than 183 million dollars per aircraft) for the above mentioned aircraft carriers specifically. But it is suspected that these F-35B will never arrive because one of three variants of the "Lightning II", the one which interested the navy most, is assumed that it will not be produced. The three variants are A, the conventional takeoff and landing, B, short takeoff and vertical landing on aircraft carriers deck which lack long flight decks (as the "Garibaldi" and "Conte di Cavour"), and C, for aircraft carriers equipped with long flight decks. Together with US, another 8 nations are contributing to the programme for the development and production of the F-35 with their innovative ideas, even though these usually end up on paper and remain there. But in recent weeks something more has happened. American defense secretary Robert Gates, has raised the possibility that America gives up the F-35B in view of the difficult development, the progressive increase in costs and the relatively small number of aircraft ordered: 350 for the marines, 150 for the British Air Force and 62 for the Italian Air Force (22 for the Navy and another 40 ordered for the Air Force, which has ordered 69 F-35A as well).

In view of all this, British government changed the order for the F-35B into an order for F-35C and requested that aircraft carriers under construction in English plants be modified with the long flight deck, capable of takeoffs and landings by the "C" model. Italy remains the only foreign purchases of the F-5B, decision that will most probably facilitate the US decision to abandon the development of this aircraft (F-35B). What will become of Italian aircraft carriers considering that it is operating the V8-B Plus, no longer being produced and the dying F-35B combat aircraft for short takeoff and vertical landing which do not exist and are not being produced? We will see ...

(World Aeronautical Press Agency - )
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