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Peace Through Superior Firepower

The Italian Navy in the Seas of Tomorrow

Disclaimer - the present article is an opinion piece.

The war in Ukraine and the increased likelihood of  confrontation between the two main superpowers of the world in the China Seas have changed the way both practitioners and the general public look at the possibility that a near-peer high intensity conflict might actually happen.

"Thaon di Revel"-class PPA "Morosini" in Yokosuka, Japan
"Thaon di Revel"-class PPA "Morosini" in Yokosuka, Japan
War went from being the often forgotten albeit somewhat more exciting chapter on history textbooks to something that the West needs to prepare for if we want it to not happen. Our lack of preparedness and of a common foreign policy, or even of a coherent approach to it, has allowed Russia - nowadays a regional power - to escalate into a regional war in Ukraine into a full-scale near-peer conflict with deep and troubling global consequences. One of them, and maybe the least intended one, has been the awakening of democracies. A renewed, larger, closer knit, more solid NATO alliance has risen from its slumber and seems poised to take a more central position in world politics. All signs point towards the fact that the political will to do so exists and is relevant enough. However, such good intentions seem to have failed to transform  into real policies in the Old World. What we have seen so far in the defense industry has been lackluster if not completely inadequate. We need to invest and make our armies stronger and ready - not to wage war, but to defend peace.

The shopping list of capabilities to acquire in order to be able to project enough power to defend a peaceful and fair world order is technically challenging, difficult to put down, and nigh impossible to keep short enough to fit in this piece of opinion.

Let’s focus down then, and take a look at a single issue for a single country, answering a seemingly simple question: how can the Italian Navy, the Marina, be ready for the peace of tomorrow?

The Marina Today - Fortifer ac Fideliter

Let’s get the numbers out of the way: the Italian Navy of today counts a total of 53 ships, out of which only just about 40 are capable of blue-water operations. There are 2 aircraft carriers - out of which one is actually an aviation cruiser. These are supported by three landing ships that have a flight deck but can only support helicopters. For the flattop escort role the navy has 4 destroyers and a total of 10 frigates - for the laypeople, these are combat ships of varying sizes (generally destroyers are larger than frigates) that have the duty of protecting the hard hitters of the fleet from both air threats (this is generally the destroyers’ role) and submarine foes (the frigates’ role - but not always). The rest are high seas patrol boats that have very limited capabilities beyond self-defense and should not be considered in any real combat scenario. They might deter patrol boats or dinghies of some smaller navy, but are just going to be a hindrance in any other situation. Last but not least, there are 8 submarines in active service. Some of these ships are aging and are going to be retired soon (the aviation cruiser and one of the landing ships in 2024 alone plus others in the coming years), and while for some there are direct replacements already planned, some others will simply result in a loss of capability and increased deployment times for the newer units.

Let’s not dive in too deep in the details though, since while a technical analysis of every ship in the fleet might be definitely interesting, it is not strictly necessary to get to the point. And the point is that while most of the ships in the Italian Navy are good, they are not really good enough.

Bergamini-class frigate Virginio Fasan
Bergamini-class frigate Virginio Fasan
If we look at the FREMM - Bergamini class frigates,  it is possible to get a rough idea of the issue at hand. Developed together with the French, these are generally recognized as very solid ships for the investment, boasting a great electronics suite, capable armament and a proven design of both the propulsion machinery and internal components. They are also ideally equipped to counter drone swarms and other lower-capability anti-ship weapons in a very cost-effective way thanks to the two or three cannons, which have proven to be considerably versatile and reliable. The project itself is so good that it even is the baseline for the very large frigates of the US Navy’s new Constellation class. However, saturation attacks don’t really care about how shiny and relatively inexpensive your super-frigate is: you either have enough missiles to engage all attackers, or you get to pay a visit to the Slava. And the current state of the Bergaminis means they are much closer to the latter than to the former (further proven by the fact that the first thing the Americans did was increase the missile launch tubes almost twofold). In the cruel world of mathematics, you either have the numbers or you do not.

This issue is roughly applicable to the Italian Navy as a whole: great pieces of tech, design genius and cost effectiveness - but severely lacking in both the quantity and offensive departments. Submarines don’t have enough torpedo tubes to be a credible threat to a hostile fleet, the carriers don’t have enough planes, the patrol boats don’t have enough ordnance for self-defense and the air defense frigates are only good against inferior opponents with a strong predilection for unmanned drones. Ten, maybe five years ago these capabilities would have been adequate - but they just don’t make the cut today.

The Marina Tomorrow - How to Fix It

Unfortunately, solving the issues of the Italian Navy is not as simple as buying more ships with more missiles on top of them. The core issue lies within the limitations of the European military-industrial complex. Even if Fincantieri upgraded its designs to maximize the number of missile launchers, MBDA, the primary missile manufacturer in Europe, would lack immediate production capacity. Significant investment in infrastructure and supply chains would be needed to accommodate the surge in demand - especially considering it is almost not enough to fulfill orders without any increase in orders.

To better put things into perspective, if we look at raw numbers, most European navies have a few hundred missile launchers each at their disposal (considering the cumulative amount of all launchers on all active service hulls); a single Ohio-class missile submarine has 154 missile tubes - more than most navies. And while it is true that not everyone has the expertise or even simply the naval budget of the United States of America, it is also true that the foes to face are the same - and they will not care about their opponents’ GDP and fiscal policies.

A possible solution to the issue would be to follow best practices and start designing and building ships jointly across all blue-water navies in the EU. Such an undertaking would prove pivotal, providing  enough investment for shipbuilders to set up yards capable of large-scale, high-intensity construction generating significant economies of scale. On paper, this sounds perfectly reasonable and sound. In reality however, each of the major European navies has slightly different strategic objectives, that turn into moderately different requirements, that turn into rather different hulls and capabilities that eat up almost all of the economies of scale. Without political unity, integrating the European military-industrial complex is nearly futile: only a coherent strategy can lead to uniformity in the requirements and designs and enabling the oh-so-ephemeral economies of scale we all love and want.

As far as the  Italian Navy is concerned, there needs to be a real change of pace in the requirements set for the ships that are procured. Today, one could think of the Marina as a relatively short-ranged force, very limited in its effectiveness outside the Mediterranean Sea. Tomorrow, it needs to be able to operate both independently and with allies in remote areas like the China Seas, and defend itself from saturation attack carried out by a near-peer adversary. While this may sound challenging, it’s not really so - or at least it lies not in the realm of totally impossible things. If we break down the objectives, there are two main issues: operational range and environment and air defense suite.

Aircraft carrier "Cavour", current Italian Navy flagship
Aircraft carrier "Cavour", current Italian Navy flagship
The operational environment is actually an advantage for the Italian Navy. The China Seas is a shallow, relatively warm-water and noisy sea, very similar to the Mediterranean. Being able to operate there might be as simple as just taking a page from the proverbial US handbook and copy-pasting onto new Bergamini-class frigates the improvements the US made to the FREMM in turning them into the Constellation-class, while the cruisers and carriers should simply operate in another environment. You really do not want your €1.5 billion flattop to be sunk by what you thought was an underwater volcano that at some point decided to launch a very angry torpedo at you. Operating submarines in those areas would be a bit more challenging of a task. Don’t get me wrong - the Todaro class is great, and probably the best boats in the world for special operations together with the USS Jimmy Carter and the Belgorod - however, they lack (if publicly available information is correct) true Air Independent Power tech, being “only” Air Independent Propulsion-capable, which limits both their endurance and their operational range (the key difference being that AIPropulsion still requires batteries while AIPower does not - and those are going to run out eventually). Here the Italian Navy still needs to improve significantly.

The whole air defense thing is a bit more complicated. As mentioned above, you need more missiles. And to fit more missiles you need more displacement, that turns into needing more powerful machinery that turns into a larger shopping bill that you need to pass a vote in the parliament. The issue is however, that the single greatest enemy of the Italian navy (and defense in general) is Italian public opinion, shaped as it is by decades of stupid anti-defense spending narratives that portray military spending as simply useless. Shifting the view Italians have of the armed forces is going to be a challenge, but it is nonetheless a battle that (figuratively) needs to be fought. Only this time the battlefield is not going to be the Alexandria harbor, but social media.

Solving these two conundrums would enable both Italy and Europe in general to finally make use of the capability they most need nowadays: to project power at a strategic level. The prime means of projecting power are aircraft carriers, and carriers need an escort able to sustain long deployments and that has enough ordnance for fleet protection; it is costly to build, operate and maintain, it requires very specific expertise and a long tradition of naval aviation - but it is also what allows countries to make their presence felt across the globe. Some may disagree, and possibly it hasn’t always been like this, but in the future we need western fleets to be a beacon of freedom for all those women and men that are oppressed, tortured, threatened by any form of theocracy or autocratic state.

To wrap up, Europe needs to find its way back on a path of political integration if it wants to not only have a role in defending the peace that was so costly created after the Second World War, but also be able to ensure its safety and that of its key allies. After all - united we stand, divided we fall.


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