Full synergy between forces and interaction with the UK Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier-based group
Operating in the Central Mediterranean, south-east of Sicily island, the joint and international activities were closely followed by Italian Chief of Defence Staff, admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, accompanied for the occasion by the Italian Navy Chief of Staff, admiral Enrico Credendino and by the Chief of Staff of Italian Air Force general Luca Goretti, on board the Italian Navy flagship.
International and joint F-35B drills
The joint exercise registered different “firsts”: Initially two operational F-35Bs belonging to the U.S. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “Wake Island Avengers”, – embarked on board the UK aircraft carrier with the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron “The Dambusters” F-35Bs -, landed and operated for the first time from ITS Cavour platform. Then an Italian Naval Aviation F-35B belonging to the Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati (GRUPAER) “Wolves”, the only combat fixed-wing unit of the Navy and one Italian Air Force F-35B of the first 5th generation fighter unit of the armed force, the 13° Gruppo (squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing) landed and operated for the first time from the UK aircraft carrier. Finally, for the first time the Italian Air Force F-35B landed and operated from the Cavour platform together with the Navy’s F-35B. All flight activities were integrated into the two aircraft carrier groups naval operations.
“This was an historical day and the beginning of a new chapter in the joint armed forces and naval operations domains. We will continue to force marches towards a complete integration of the two F-35 components of Italian Air Force and Navy, taking to a full interoperability in both the air and naval domains based on the operational procedures used by the two armed forces. Today we saw Italian F-35Bs belonging to the Air Force and the Navy operating together from Cavour platform and from the Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier while USMC F-35Bs operated from the Cavour. The operational training interaction also saw all the four armed forces’ F-35Bs conducting flying activities together, demonstrating strong interoperability between the allied partners”.Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, Italy’s Chief of Defence
“In addition to the excellent capabilities already achieved by the Italian Air Force F-35As, both in the operational field and in real operations, the today’s exercise represents a strong push in the process of developing the national air projection capacity from the sea, with the integration of a fifth generation joint tactical multirole force”, said admiral Cavo Dragone, congratulating with the Navy and Air Force personnel involved in the activity. “The synergies between the Navy and the Air Force in the use of the F-35Bs on board the aircraft carrier, will also be achieved in the deployments ashore, operating jointly in operational situations where suitable landing strips for conventional aircraft are not available”, he added according to an official statement, highlighting the multidomain integration of both components and the Italian Navy F-35Bs participation from ashore to both on-land and on-sea operations.
“We are happy to work together and to do it also with our British and US Marines colleagues because the joint training of pilots and crews of the ships guarantees full interoperability: the future is today”.Admiral Enrico Credendino, Italian’s Navy Chief of Staff
“For the Air Force the ability to land on aircraft carriers is an element that amplifies and integrates the expeditionary capability of the armed force”.
“Activities of this kind, as part of the STOVL capability, allow to train to operate in operational contexts and on short runways and demonstrate how much the new 5th generation aircraft, thanks to its versatility of employment, is a fundamental asset for the armed force and for the Defence to ensure the projection of forces in crisis areas”.General Luca Goretti, Italian’s Air Force Chief of Staff
The interaction with the British aircraft carrier group has made it possible to successfully test the joint technical-operational procedures aimed at achieving full interoperability between the two Navies, added the Italian MoD statement.
“The fact that US, Italian and UK F-35Bs are able to fly to and from one another’s decks offers tactical agility and strategic advantage to NATO”, said Royal Navy Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group in a statement released by UK MoD about the joint activities. “Today’s activity is a telling demonstration of the ability of the UK’s flagship to work seamlessly with other nations; Italy is the third nation to land an F-35B on to the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the seventh military operating F-35 aircraft that the UK’s Carrier Strike Group has exercised with on CSG21”, he added.
The British carrier strike group, to which the ITS Andrea Doria destroyer has been integrated in the last few days, is on its way back to the United Kingdom, while the Italian naval group, also including the Garibaldi amphibious helicopter carrier, the Durand de la Penne destroyer and the Vulcano logistic support ship, headed back to the Taranto naval base. After the participation to the exercise Mare Aperto 2021 in October, the ITS Cavour returned to sea on 11 November to conduct pilot carrier qualifications (CQ) activities with F-35B and AV-8B Plus aircraft.
Cavour aircraft carrier and the F-35B
Last April, the Cavour aircraft carrier returned from the ‘Ready for Operations’ campaign in the US during which the platform was certified and cleared for operations with the F-35B STOVL by the F-35 Patuxent River Integrated Test Force (ITF). Last July, the first Italian Navy’s F-35B assigned to the GRUPAER unit landed for the first time on the ITS Cavour in the Mediterranean sea. In order to accommodate the fifth generation STOVL aircraft, which is going to replace the in-service AV-8B Harrier II Plus, the Cavour was subjected at the Arsenale Militare Marittimo of Taranto to modifications and enhancements in addition to platform and propulsion overhaul, based on a contract awarded by Italian MoD Naval Armaments Directorate (NAVARM) in April 2018 to Fincantieri, leading an industrial team including Leonardo and consortiums of small-to-medium enterprises. The platform entered the Taranto’s Mar Piccolo to reach the Arsenale Marittimo’s facilities in December 2018 to exit in May 2020 and began an intensive preparation and training period prior to the US campaign.
Among the activities related to the accommodation of the F-35B, the most relevant and visible were the application of a deck coating suited to withstand the extreme temperatures emanated by the F-35B’s engines. All areas of the flight deck involved in F-35B activities (around 4,200 square meters) have been coated with a thermal metal spray capable of resisting temperatures of up to 1,500° C. The flight deck has been reinforced in correspondence of landing spot 2, 3, 4 and 5 with metal structures added underneath each spot in order to withstand the thermodynamic payloads associated with the aircraft engine exhausts. The thermodynamic stress was evaluated based on eight consecutive landings on the same spot at a distance of 120 seconds from each other. More resistance flight deck and landing lights were introduced while a second spot (spot 4) was equipped with a line-up director sight (LUDS) landing aid system and cleared for night operations in addition to an already existing one. Moreover, to mitigate the thermo-dynamic impact, the life rafts located in the path of the F-35B’s downwash and in the vicinity of the landing spots have been repositioned and thermal deflectors were installed to protect the JP5 refueling stations, the fire-fighting stations, and intakes of some of the air ventilation and conditioning system together with new catwalks on the left side of the flight deck. Other equipment and antennas were repositioned around the stern and bow flight deck parking. Acoustic insulating materials were added to compartments underneath the flight deck and on the island.
In addition to the landing approach aid systems already on board and including Leonardo SPN-720 shipborne precision approach radar, a new joint precision approach and landing system (JPALS), and the new AN/SPN-41B version of the instrument carrier landing system (ICLS), were installed alongside the SINS (Shipboard aircraft INertial alignment System). As first international sale, the JPALS is a GPS-based landing system that integrates with shipboard air traffic control and landing system architectures to guide fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters with pinpoint approach and landings on carriers and amphibious assault ships in all weather and surface conditions. It also features anti-jam protection for operating in electronic warfare environments. The whole package was qualified by the US NAVAIR PMA-213 during the US ‘Ready for Operation’ campaign.
The embarkation of specific equipment for the F-35B requested modifications to the hangar, spaces transformation on the island and flight deck underneath compartments, magazines and maintenance facilities. The Cavour was equipped with a Special Access Program Facility (SAPF) area for aircraft mission planning, briefing, debriefing, protected by high security systems, as well as the automated logistic information system (ALIS), which integrates a broad range of F-35B data to enhance the jet operational availability. In order to support the higher data transfer required by this system, one of the ship’s SATCOM systems was enhanced. The platform was also prepared to embark a back-up containerized SAPF. This will be used not only to support allied nations on-board aircraft detachments but it will be also used for potential ashore deployment (both for operational and training purposes).
Together with enhancements to the three magazines for mixed weapons accommodation and the movement path optimization to reach the dedicated elevators, an enlarged weapon staging area has been created in front and back of the island. Among other modifications, the two-tonne overhead crane in the hangar’s jet engine workshop has been replaced by a four-tonne safe working load crane suited to handling the heavier F-35B engines and lift-fans, the hangar having received new wall supports for aircraft bomb racks and missile launchers alongside compartment enhancement for flight personnel equipment. The aircraft carrier electrical distribution system was also modified based on the F-35B needs with the introduction of new transformers and converters while the platform gensets were overhauled for performance recovery.
The technical support and refueling capabilities have been incremented in terms of JP-5, while introducing oxygen, nitrogen and litio batteries storage/recharge station compartments. The aviation fuel storage capacity has increased by 320 tonnes to meet the F-35Bs higher fuel consumption, and the JP5 refueling points located in the catwalks and hangar bay have been replaced by new lighter and more manageable ones.
The Cavour’s Integrated System for Automation and Platform Supervision (SIASP) received an enhanced software/hardware architecture for additional control/monitoring functions related to the new embarked systems, in addition to improvements to the platform data distribution network, among other systems. These modifications and equipment has increased the overall platform displacement by circa 300 tonnes, which required stability trails and checks before returning into service.
The Italian Navy flagship maintains an armament package based on the Eurosam SAAM-IT air defence system with MBDA Aster 15 missiles launched by two groups of 16 Sylver A43 launchers each working together with Leonardo SPY-790 EMPAR multifunction radar, together with two Leonardo 76/62 Super Rapido guns in the Davide/DART configuration with guided ammunitions for anti-ship missile engagements and three OTO 25 mm KBA guns for asymmetric threats protection.