Italian Navy and Air Force F-35Bs conduct joint training on the island of Pantelleria

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Italian Navy and Air Force F-35Bs during exercise at Pantelleria Airport. (All photos: Matteo Buono)

The two services’ F-35Bs will continue to operate together as further integration emerges.

After spending years “fighting” each other to get more F-35Bs, the “honeymoon” (as Air Force Chief of Staff General Luca Goretti called it) began between the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) and the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) continues. On January 27, 2022, a joint exercise involving the two F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) assets from both services took place on the island of Pantelleria.

The exercise on the tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea aimed to improve integration between the Air Force and Navy’s fifth-generation multirole aircraft while developing expeditionary capacity from a land base through the use of a “strict” airfield that was not suitable is for flight operations of conventional take-off aircraft. Defense Chief of Staff Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Enrico Credendino and Air Force Chief of Staff General Goretti attended the event.

We were invited to attend the event and our collaborator Matteo Buono flew to Pantelleria to take the photos you will find in this article.

F-35B Italian Navy
The Italian Navy F-35B.

“The goal is to achieve expeditionary capacity from both land and sea [aircraft carrier] through integrated and synergistic use of Navy and Air Force F-35B assets while respecting the prerogatives of Chiefs of Defense. There will be increasingly profitable synergies that allow for a unified use of STOVL capacity: Depending on the domain, the F-35Bs will be placed under the operational control of one service or another, always reporting to the Joint Chief of Staff,” said Admiral Cavo dragons.

Italy will not adopt the British model, meaning there will be no Lightning Force with a joint squadron equipped with jointly flown and serviced F-35Bs: the Italians are aiming for a “joint capability” with the Italian Air Force and Navy , which operates its own aircraft in its own units. However, if necessary, the F-35Bs of both services will be integrated and operate under a single chain of command from land bases or from an aircraft carrier or a landing helicopter dock (like the LHD Trieste, which will be ready to receive the aircraft next year) via TOA (Transfer Of Authority ).

In total, Aeronautica Militare and Marina Militare will each operate 15 F-35Bs: the Air Force will use the Lightning II as a replacement for the AMX (which will be retired this year), while the Navy will use the 5th generation aircraft as a replacement the AV-8B+ Harrier II (which is scheduled to be phased out in 2024-2025 when the naval service will be equipped with at least 8 F-35Bs).

The next F-35B to be delivered to the Italian Ministry of Defense will be assigned to the Italian Air Force, which currently operates only one STOVL Lightning II.

Last week’s training event at Pantelleria follows exercises conducted in November 2021, during which an Italian Air Force F-35B landed for the first time on the Italian Navy’s aircraft carrier Cavour; the first integration on board the airline by the F-35Bs of the Italian Air Force and Navy; the first landing of the Italian F-35B aboard the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Italian Navy F-35B prepares for takeoff after refueling in the hot pit.

More specifically, the two F-35Bs landed at the “expedition” aerodrome, Pantelleria Airport, and performed a “hot pit” refueling, receiving gas from a KC-130J aircraft of the 46^ Brigata Aerea (Air Brigade ) from Pisa, via the ALARP (Air Landed Aircraft Refueling Point) system.

The KC-130J refueling the F-35B via the ALARP system ALARP (Air Landed Aircraft Refueling Point) system.

After ground refueling, the two F-35Bs took off again and joined two Italian Air Force Typhoon Eurofighters to conduct a COMAO, Composite Air Operation. The latter included close air support (CAS) for the surface forces through ground JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) and air interdiction with strategic and tactical management carried out by the G550 CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) aircraft of the 14° Stormo (Wing ). The COMAO was supported by a KC-767A aircraft.

David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the founder and editor of The Aviationist, one of the world’s best-known and most-read military aviation blogs. Since 1996 he has written for major worldwide magazines including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft and many others on aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar topics. He has reported from the US, Europe, Australia and Syria and has flown several fighter jets with various air forces. He is a former 2nd Lieutenant in the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many others.

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