During an Aerospace Nation podcast with Gen. Luca Goretti, Chief of Staff, Italian Air Force, he discussed the Italian Air Force priorities regarding technologies, operational concepts, and associated strategies. Kyle Lee/staff
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Q&A: Airpower, a la Italia

Nov. 2, 2023

Italy’s air force dates its founding to 1923. Beginning in the post-World War II period, it has long flown U.S. aircraft. Italian Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Luca Goretti now leads Italy’s air force, which today features both the MQ-9 and the F-35. He joined retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies for an Aerospace Nation event in October. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: The U.S. Air Force and the Italian Air Force are very closely aligned. Could you walk through our relationship?

A: When I was selected to be a wing commander, I was called up by the Air Chief at that time, and he said to me, ‘You will be a wing commander in the Mandalay base, and you have two tasks. The first task is to find a way to fly the UAVs and [prepare] an airfield for the new equipment that we’re going to buy, the F-35.’ That for me, was kind of an adventure, and since then, I’ve been involved in both programs.

And the first thing I said to myself, ‘Let’s train together with friends.’ So I was able to put up some activities with some U.S. Air Force guys, and they helped me out a lot, to establish a very solid capability on UAVs. And they did the same with the F-35. 

And the results are evident. We’ve been deployed everywhere in the world using our equipment. Of course, we didn’t go kinetic for legal reasons, but we are able to do it. We probably will do it if we are required to. And with the F-35, we were the leading nation in Europe to build up this capacity. But without the help of friends and allies from the United States, this wouldn’t be accomplished.

Q: What are the benefits and opportunities that the Italian Air Force has discovered in being both a fifth-generation aircraft and a remotely piloted aircraft-equipped force?

A: Just considering flying those kinds of aircraft in Europe is quite different than the United States. For instance, air traffic is very, very crowded and congested because of the limited space. So one thing that we did for the UAVs for instance, is what we call the ‘Pope ball effect.’ We set up a 5-mile ball around the UAVs, so we are able now to fly everywhere in our country without any problems. You only have to make a request through the normal line of communications, and everybody else moves away from the flight.

… We did the same with the F-35. The F-35 has to be considered not only an aircraft, but it has to considered a node of data information. So we used that aircraft to change completely the mindset of the people. It is no longer an aircraft to fly, but actually is a data machine available in the air for everyone. And being the leading nation, we were able to test this over the sea, sometimes over unpopulated areas, and pass that information to all the other nations that were actually incoming F-35 users.

Q: Italy has partnered with the United Kingdom and Japan on the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), a next-generation fighter. What are your goals for the Global Combat Air Programme and what impact do you envision for that aircraft having on European security?

A: [What] we did with the F-35 was used to change the attitude of the overall [Italian] Air Force. We thought that it could be a good idea just to start planning something very unique, from the beginning, like we did with the F-35. 

So when I was able to talk to my minister of defense, to my premier related to the GCAP program, I found a very positive attitude … and I really have to thank them because they realized that this was a great opportunity. … 

GCAP no more has to be considered as an aircraft. It is a system of systems, where everybody can play using the technology and digital information, artificial intelligence, in order to be relevant for the fight of the future. 

With this in mind, the program is not only a way to increase our knowledge on the technical side, but also how to increase the knowledge and the power of the people that will fly these kinds of systems. So we changed completely also the career of the people that are coming in the academy.  

Q: How does this effort relate to some of the other fighter modernization efforts that we see going on around the world?

A: Interoperability and coordination can be a factor. We used to do cross-servicing without any problem by signing papers, and we could have a Spanish guy or a Dutch guy or a U.S. guy jumping on board or doing servicing. Now for several reasons, we need to have technical agreements in order to just have that clearance to fly together. This is something that we have to consider. 

So every single system we invent or produce has to be interoperable with other partners. So we cannot afford just to lose time when it’s necessary, just because we need a paper to be signed. … We have to do the same thing for satellites. We have to do the same thing for ASC2, command platforms, in order just to reduce the risk of wasting time, because [at some point]—I hope never—we will not have time to think about it.

Q: The addition of “Combined” to “Joint All-Domain Command and Control” emphasizes the need to integrate with allies and partners. What kind of opportunities and barriers do you see for integrating with international partners, particularly the United States?

A: I don’t see many problems. It’s just a matter of mutual trust. And this, for me, is a key factor. If we all are on the same side, if we all can prove that we can sustain activities together, I think it is quite normal that you have to consider everybody mutual friends.

With this in mind, I see [fewer] problems in the future in relation to sharing information.

But on the other hand, I have to also consider that the Ukrainian crisis put this issue [on the table]. So even though we are not considering mutual trust one of the key factors, we have to consider war, actual war, as a key factor to reduce this kind of friction that we might get, in order to share information.

Information sharing is a very important tool, not just in the future, but even today. We cannot afford to wait in order to see information. If we have to cooperate all together, we need to have the common view of what’s going on, especially coming from equipment that are capable of providing the light inside the tunnel for everyone. This is something that has to be accomplished by the political leaders and military leaders of all the allied communities.

Q: All of our air forces are seeking to modernize ISR capabilities. What kinds of capabilities are you planning on fielding in the future?

A: We cannot afford not to have ISR platforms available every time [they’re needed]. … In fact, we decided in recent years to buy several platforms capable of accomplishing the full spectrum of ISR. Maybe more than any other capacity. … With the United States, we established a very close cooperation to acquire platforms that are capable to be relevant. I might say fifth-generation ISR platforms, in order just to be ready and available in case we do need them. And the program is going forward. I’m very, very happy about the progression of the equipment in the acquisition phase.

At the same time, I’m using also the great cooperation we have with the United States Air Force in order to increase the knowledge and proficiency of my people that I intend to utilize for flying those kinds of aircraft.

Q: In August, Italy deployed F-35s to Japan for the first time. What was that all about?

A: First of all, for ourselves, we decided to prove that we were capable of sustaining power projection everywhere in the world. And because the relationships between the Italian Air Force and the Japanese Air Force is very, very sound and profound, we decided to go there. 

It was not only just to show the capability to project for the first time European F-35s so far distant in the Pacific, but also to see if I was able to sustain this kind of deployment without canceling any other activities that were already in place in Europe. That means that I was able to prove to me, convince myself, that my Air Force—especially the logistics system over there—was capable of moving fleets and people around without leaving some priorities [uncovered].  

So I was able to keep the Air Policing mission in Lithuania, kept the Air Policing in Poland, the detachment in Kuwait, at the same time when I was moving aircraft down in the Pacific. 

With the geopolitical situation like it is today, we cannot afford just to be caught by surprise. … We have to do something in the Indo-Pacific. I cannot afford to receive an order to deploy somewhere and not be able to move around because of diplomatic clearances, for instance, because I cannot do stopover flights somewhere. 

So it’s a building process, the activities that we are doing, and the first part was to deploy to Japan in three days. Next year, we’ll be deploying almost 25 jets in Australia for the Pitch Black exercise, alongside the Navy guys that will be flying onboard the carrier with the F-35Bs. This is another milestone. Normally, Air Force and Navy guys, they don’t like to talk to each other. But actually we are in a very good situation with the [Chief of Naval Operations]. We decided to … fly to Pitch Black together.

The third objective was, at the end of the Pitch Black, to prepare a nonstop flight from Europe to the Indo-Pacific, using F-35 and Eurofighters at the same time—just to see if we are able to move quickly when it’s necessary. … You never know. With the situation today, we cannot afford just to wake up one day and say to our leaders, we are not ready.

Q: You have spoken about the importance of multidomain training for future forces. Could you go into some more detail on this concept?

A: So we might buy aircraft, we might buy equipment, in a fast way. We cannot buy people and train them in a short time. So we need to prepare them properly and accordingly, in relation to the new equipment that we are buying. And the new equipment requires a multidomain mindset. So we decided to change, in our academy system, in our training system, all these syllabi in order to fit in what is necessary, in order to create an Airman that is capable of sustaining the needs of a multidomain approach. 

And it was not easy, because, actually, you have to get rid of the archaic training facilities or training tools and bring new ones. And the problem was to find the person that was able to train them and say to the other people, they are fired, because you are influencing deeply the training methods. 

But I think it’s necessary. Sometimes we have to do it, and we have to do it rapidly because technology and multidomain operations are already ongoing. Space can play a bigger role in the future. So we need to train those people and have those people ready, and hurry up. Otherwise we are lagging and dragging. We cannot afford this.

Q: One of the other concepts that you put forward is one that is kind of based on the idea of an Air Expeditionary Force centered around the F-35B. How do you plan on developing this idea? And how does it relate to the US Air Force’s idea of agile combat employment?

A: We decided to have two versions of the F-35: the F-35As and the F-35Bs. And the decision was made wisely, in my opinion, because we do have many, many short airfields around the world. So we decided, why don’t we take some Bs for short-distance takeoff and landing in order just to be relevant everywhere in the world? The Afghanistan scenario gave us a thought on this. So we decided just to get some Bs. And then it turned out to be a wise idea, because if you consider also what’s happening in Ukraine, airfield dispersion can be—maybe—one day the only way to protect your high-value assets.

We need to be agile in order to take the aircraft away from your main base, deploy somewhere and be ready to fight for the second day. 

With this in mind we decided just to ask to our logistic people to find standard buildings and structures similar to several airfields in our country, and proposing the same thing also to other friendly countries, in order just to have the same buildings, the same equipment, the same block in the same spot, in case you do have to run away from your main operating bases. We cannot afford to lose time. But most of all, we cannot afford to lose our capacity.

We cannot afford just to wait for a hypersonic missile to destroy your base and not knowing what to do the day after. You cannot build anything in one day. You need to preposition everything, think about the worst-case scenario. And if you don’t plan accordingly in advance, you will be late. You will be dead. You will fail your mission.