Italian hard power: Ambitions and fiscal realities

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  • Italy's military capabilities fall short of key allied countries of similar size and economic strength.

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  • Without strategic airlift and sealift, Italy will likely require the assistance of its NATO allies.

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  • Increasing instability in the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean Basin could impact Italy's security.

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Italian hard power: Ambitions and fiscal realities

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In 2011, Italy had the eighth-largest gross domestic product in the world. Yet, when it comes to converting Italy’s assets into military hard power, the country falls short of the standard set by countries of similar size. A decade ago, Italy’s stated goal was to reverse this trend and, in turn, allow Rome to play a more substantial military role in the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa. While Italy has been an active participant in a number of UN- and NATO-sanctioned international operations, it has never increased its defense spending to the level required to create an all-professional, fully equipped force on par with allied states such as the United Kingdom and France. Compounding this problem is Italy’s current fiscal crisis, which has led to significant reductions in investment and operations accounts. With no sign of budget increases for the Italian military in sight, the defense ministry is now calling for a leaner, more modernized Italian military and the procurement of fewer, albeit newer, military platforms. Can Italy execute these plans without an increase in defense spending, and will the regional and global ambitions Italy once set for its military diminish as forces contract?

  Key points in this Outlook:

  • Although Italy has the eighth-largest economy in the world, its military capabilities fall short of key allied countries of similar size and economic strength because of the government’s long-term failure to increase its defense budget.
  • Facing severe fiscal constraints, the Italian government has issued a new round of defense spending cuts that has substantially lowered overall force structure, but which the government hopes will still allow for continued modernization of its forces.
  • The question going forward is whether the regional and global ambitions Rome once had for its military will diminish as its forces contract.


This is the second National Security Outlook in a series about the defense capabilities of America's allies and security partners.[1]

Although recent headlines have highlighted Italy’s dire fiscal situation, its defense capabilities have been in decline since well before the latest economic crisis. For Americans who grew up reading about the sometimes poor performance of Italian forces in World War II or watching movies set in Rome in which the theme is la dolce vita, perhaps this comes as no surprise.

However, Italy remains one of the world’s leading economies; it had the eighth-largest gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011.[2] And, indeed, in terms of the size of its economy and population, the two nations Italy most resembles are France and the United Kingdom. But, in terms of willingness to turn these attributes into hard military power, Rome falls short of benchmarks set by Paris and London.

As figure 1 elucidates, Italy’s defense burden (measured as a percentage of GDP), while never high in the past, has declined even more in recent years.[3] As a percentage of GDP, Italy’s defense burden has dropped substantially from what it was just a decade ago—and well below the 2 percent minimum that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies agreed to try to obtain at the alliance summit in Prague in 2002.

And, although both France and the United Kingdom have also seen defense spending decline, Italy’s per-capita expenditure on defense, according to the Italian defense ministry, lags significantly behind that of its NATO allies (see figure 2). On the face of it, Italy is punching well below its weight (see figure 3).

Nor is Italy’s defense budget picture improving. According to the Italian defense ministry, its base defense budget [Funzione Difesa (FD)]—never large to begin with—will fall to €13.6 billion this year (see figure 4).[4]

Compared to the FD average of the previous four years (2008–11), this amounts to a cut of some 7 percent. Significantly, the “investment” (procurement) portion of the budget for 2012 has been shorn by 25 percent from the previous four years and has seen a drop of nearly 30 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone.

Also important is the reduction in funds allotted to Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development, which subsidizes Italian defense research and development and procurement programs, as well as a 30 percent reduction in funds for military operations abroad. Under new austerity measures, Italy will reduce its defense budget by €3 billion over the next three years.[5]

Italy’s Strategic Vision

Any analysis of Italian grand strategy faces one overriding difficulty: there is no systematic production by the government of national-level strategy papers. To the extent that strategic documents have been issued, more often than not, they have been at the initiative of individual ministers rather than an established policy-planning process.

That said, there have been various government papers issued over the past decade that allow one to tease out Italy’s strategic ambitions, and the military—the government believes—is required to obtain them. The most relevant documents of this sort have been the 2001 defense ministry’s New Forces for a New Century; the post–9/11 Defense White Paper, issued by the ministry in 2002; the 2005 Defense Chief of Staff’s Strategic Concept paper; the defense staff’s 2005 Investing in Security: The Armed Forces, An Evolving Tool; and the defense ministry’s annual Addendum to the Defense Budget, which attempts to give strategic and political context to the approved budget, as well as provide details on specific accounts within the budget.

The 2001 document was the first formal paper of its kind produced by the Italian defense ministry since the end of the Cold War—indeed, it was the first since the mid–1980s.[6] The paper notes the obvious but important point that Italy will not be facing a conventional military threat to its homeland anytime soon. But it couples that fact with the assertion that Italy’s interests are “quite broad,” ranging from Southeastern Europe to the Caucasus, from the Horn of Africa to the Maghreb, and that Italy’s military contribution to collective security and stabilization efforts in recent years has ranged far, wide, and outside the areas directly affecting Italy’s own strategic national interest.[7]

New Forces offers up a relatively ambitious strategic outlook, including Italy potentially having the capability to take the lead in military operations. To meet those ambitions, the paper notes that Italy will need to progress in creating an all-professional military, work with allied countries to develop and produce a plethora of new weapons systems, and increase its defense expenditures from 1.5 to 2.0 percent of GDP. The post–Cold War “peace dividend” had to end if Italy’s military was going to be able to handle the expected increased involvement in multilateral (NATO- and European Union-led) military operations, and do so as a capable allied force.

The 2002 white paper was published in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent removal of the Taliban-led government from power in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the paper pays particular attention to the then-emerging threat of Islamist terrorism and, similar to the previous year’s document, emphasizes the military’s need to operate abroad in concert with allies or under the auspices of the United Nations. With the recent conflict in the Balkans and Afghanistan being on the defense ministry’s mind, stabilization missions were at the forefront, leading, among other things, to a potentially enhanced role for the Carabinieri—Italy’s national military police force—in peacekeeping operations.

As in 2001, the 2002 white paper reemphasized the need to reform and modernize the Italian military. It noted that the air force was short on modern fighters and even missiles for its planes. It also pointed out that much of the navy fleet was aging, and advocated accelerating the transition to an all-professional Italian military, with a total active duty level for the armed forces set at 190,000, and 12 to 13 smaller but more capable army brigades. To help pay for this transformation, the white paper hoped to find savings in lower overall force structure and a new level of allied defense industrial cooperation to reduce costs while simultaneously increasing interoperability.[8]

The 2005 Strategic Concept paper was not a substantial break from previous papers, but it did attempt to provide a somewhat fuller account of the military tasks confronting a European power in the post–Cold War, post–9/11 era. The paper claimed that in addition to traditional requirements such as protecting the homeland, Italy faces threats that are increasingly “multilayered and unpredictable,” requiring a preemptive military capability and a capacity to intervene rapidly even when the threat is some distance from Italy.[9]

Italian forces will thus need to act more jointly and, more often than not, in concert with allied militaries. To do so, the military will require enhanced command and control capabilities, surveillance assets, mobility, logistic support, and precision-guided weaponry. In fine, the Italian military should aim for a qualitative improvement of its capabilities that are more in line with NATO’s leading powers and that allow the military to address the wide range of security problems it might be asked to address.

After the Strategic Concept paper, the defense staff’s Investing in Security paper was published.[10] With its focus on the likely requirements for the Italian military over the next 15 years, the document drills down even further than the Strategic Concept paper in its matching of specific scenarios with force requirements. It lays out what capabilities it would need to secure “national spaces” and an immediate-reaction expeditionary (land, air, and naval) force that could act as an independent entry force, operate alone for 30 days if necessary, and for six months as part of a larger multinational operation.[11]

Also useful for understanding Italy’s strategic posture or, more specifically, the connection between the country’s ambitions and the military resources it is willing to apply are the yearly Nota Aggiuntiva allo Stato di Previsione per la Difesa. The “Additional Note” to the defense budget is sent to the Italian parliament under the signature of the defense minister and provides an overview of how the ministry views the overall security situation and, in turn, its plans and programs for the military to meet its security objectives.

Starting with the Nota Aggiuntiva for the 2001 budget—a document released in October 2000—and ending with the Nota Aggiuntiva for 2012, Italy’s post–Cold War view of the security environment has been relatively stable. The notes first and foremost recognize that Italy faces no conventional military threat of any consequence to its homeland. However, since the late 1990s, Italian governments of both the left and right perceive Italy’s security as being affected by instability in the Balkans, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean Basin, and, since the  9/11 attacks, even farther afield.

Hence, the country’s security problems are “multi-dimensional” and of “undefined contours.”[12] This, in turn, requires, as note after note suggests, a military that is deployable, flexible, sustainable for extended periods, and modernized so as to be capable of operating in conjunction with top-line forces of both NATO and the European Union.

Indeed, at the turn of the century, in the 2001 note, Italy was not shy about its ambitions. With plans to begin reversing the “peace dividend” cuts to the military that took place throughout the 1990s, Minister of Defense Sergio Mattarella declared that Italy’s global “credibility” had grown, making Italy “one of the leading” countries in NATO and the EU, as well as, he pointed out, being the fourth largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions.[13]

With more than 8,000 of its military deployed abroad—ranging from operations in the Balkans to a stabilization mission in East Timor—Italy was asserting itself in a manner that allowed it to increasingly play a role in that group of nations driving international affairs. The 2001 bump in defense spending was only the first step, the note argued, in Italy’s military acquiring the kind of capabilities needed to match its ambitions and ensuring that it would not be a “mere spectator” in addressing future security problems.[14]

Indeed, by 2006, more than 10,500 of Italy’s military were deployed abroad, including to Iraq and Afghanistan. And while the numbers were “unprecedented” for post–World War II Italy, the note also stipulated that, in light of the generally unpredictable security environment, those numbers could no longer be thought of as “unusual.”[15]

Of course, increasing deployments abroad while at the same time modernizing Italian forces required greater resources for Italy to fulfill its new strategic ambitions. As with most European states following the end of the Cold War, Italy had made deep cuts in its defense budget. The increase in defense spending in 2001 was meant to be the first step in reversing course and, eventually, putting Italy on par with France and the United Kingdom when it came to defense spending and military credibility.

According to the note attached to the 2002 budget, the goal was to have the base defense budget (FD) equal 1.5 percent of GDP and then be sustained there.[16] At that level, the FD would be more or less aligned with other “major” European allies. However, this would require a change in Italian spending priorities since, in 2002, the FD was less than 1.1 percent of the country’s GDP.

Even with the slight bump in resources in 2002, however, the increase in personnel costs was squeezing the training, maintenance, and investment accounts. Indeed, by 2006, more than 70 percent of the base defense budget was going to personnel costs—far from the “model” allocation in which 50 percent goes to personnel costs, 25 percent is spent on maintaining the force, and 25 percent is spent on procurement and recapitalization.

Further complicating matters was the fact that, between 2002 and 2006, the defense budget was cut every year. By 2006, the base defense budget was down to 0.82 percent of GDP, and the ministry began announcing delays in modernization plans and increasing problems in sustaining the overall readiness of the force.

After an increase in the defense budget in 2007—but, according to the note, just enough of one to support the most pressing operational requirements for overseas operations and to “only partially allow” the ministry to deal with “the already difficult” problem of too few resources—the tsunami of the global economic crisis hit.[17] By 2009, the note was warning that, if the downward direction of the budget continued, the ministry would have to slash the size of its force by tens of thousands, plans for modernization would dramatically slow, and “important programs” would need to be “reduced or postponed.”[18]

The trend has not been reversed, and, as predicted in the 2012 note, the ministry has formalized plans to shrink the Italian military by 40,000 and cut back or delay procurement programs designed to modernize Italy’s military.

In short, since 2007, resources for training and modernization have dropped by over 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Like other European states that are reducing numbers of people and platforms, the pledge is that Italy’s military will be “of smaller dimensions but with higher quality.”[19] Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

But the ambitions Italy set for itself a little more than a decade ago cannot, as the ministry itself made clear from the start, be fulfilled in the absence of a sustained increase in defense funds. In this context, was the fact that Italy was forced to withdraw its aircraft carrier—the Garibaldi—from ongoing NATO operations against Libya in July 2011 in order to cut costs the low point from which the Italian forces will now move forward, or a harbinger of things to come?[20]

Italy’s Military Abroad

Italy’s military during the Cold War was principally focused on defending the country itself. This strategic posture was reinforced by the fact that, as one of World War II’s defeated Axis powers, Italy was reluctant (like post-war Japan and Germany) to be viewed as believing that its military was for anything but defending the homeland proper.

To a very limited degree, this attitude toward the use of the military has changed in Japan in the wake of 9/11. And judging by Berlin’s use of the military in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa over the past decade and a half, it appears that Germany has modified its views about what constitutes a legitimate use of military force.

So too Italy, if judging by the number of times its military has been involved in operations outside its borders.[21] Italian forces were sent to Iraq during the First Gulf War, followed shortly thereafter by a deployment to Somalia, and then to Bosnia. Other deployments have included operations in Central Africa, East Timor, Mozambique, the Balkans, Iraq again, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and, most recently, against Libya, where the Italian Air Force flew air defense suppression and strike missions and helped enforce the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over the country.

While the activity level of the Italian military has certainly picked up in recent years, perhaps the origins of this new attitude toward using the military dates to 1982 when Italy—along with France and the United States—sent troops into Lebanon in the wake of the First Lebanon War between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syria. The deployment arose because Rome believed that given its geographic location, Italy should have a more prominent role in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean security affairs.

But it was not until Italy’s participation in Desert Storm in 1991—the first time the Italian Air Force had been involved in actual military operations since World War II—that the rate of the military’s deployments surged and appeared to open the door to more kinetic use of force. For example, in the 1991 Kosovo War air campaign against Yugoslav forces, Italy was the third largest contributor of aircraft and flew the fourth largest number of sorties by a NATO member.[22]

However, more recent deployments present a mixed picture when it comes to the use of military force, especially in the cases of Italian ground contingents sent to Iraq in 2003 after Saddam Hussein was removed from power, to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, and to Lebanon following the “33-Day War” between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.

Wary of casualties and unwilling to provide the extended security rationale that would be needed to justify Italy’s involvement in all three missions, successive governments in Rome have sold these deployments—involving thousands of Italian soldiers en total—to the Italian public as “peacekeeping” and “humanitarian” missions. But, of course, neither the Iraq nor the Afghanistan mission turned out to be the “soft” power, light security missions the Italians expected.

Iraq. The Italian military’s deployment to Iraq—which lasted from June 2003 until November 2006—was certainly as difficult an experience for Italy’s forces as what they faced in Afghanistan, and undoubtedly reinforced Rome’s inclination to take a cautious operational approach in Afghanistan. Coming on the heels of the American-led military campaign removing Saddam Hussein from power—a campaign decidedly unpopular with the Italian electorate—the decision to send Italian troops was justified by the government as an “urgent intervention in favor of the Iraqi people.” Keeping with this theme, Italy’s defense minister at the time said the intervention was just the “opposite of war.”[23]

But war it was. Just a few short months after deploying almost 3,000 troops to Nasiriyah, a city in Dhi Qar Province southeast of Baghdad, a lightly protected Italian outpost was attacked by a suicide bomber, which killed thirteen Italian military policemen and four soldiers. In response, the order was given to move most of Italy’s forces out of the city. This was not going to be the kind of “peacekeeping” and “stabilization” operation Italian forces had previously conducted in the Balkans.

And, indeed, throughout the spring of 2004, Italian forces were engaged in a form of urban warfare with the Mahdi Army, as this Shia militia attempted to take advantage of Rome’s decision to reduce its footprint in the city.[24] Lacking firepower, numbers, sufficiently armored vehicles, and surveillance capabilities, the best the Italian forces could do was establish a strategic standoff for control of the city. Eventually, the decision was made to concentrate the vast bulk of Italian troops at Tallil Air Base outside the city. With the change of government in Rome in April 2006, the decision was made to end the Iraq mission altogether.

Afghanistan. There is little question that the Italian military’s involvement in Afghanistan has been the largest, most complex, and most difficult campaign for the country since World War II. A little over two months after the 9/11 attacks, elements of Italy’s navy (an aircraft carrier, two frigates, and a tanker) were steaming toward the Indian Ocean in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Engaged principally in sea-control duties and at-sea inspections of suspicious vessels, the carrier Garibaldi deployed with eight AV-8 (Harrier) ground-attack jets that flew nearly 300 missions over Afghanistan. However, Rome had restricted the Harriers’ use to target identification, leaving actual strike missions to other allied planes.[25]

On the ground, Italy’s contribution to ISAF has recently topped 4,000 troops (see figure 5). In addition, the Italian military assumed overall command of ISAF from September 2005 to May 2006, took the ISAF lead in 2005 of the geographically large and forbidding area of western Afghanistan, headed up the Provisional Reconstruction Team in Herat, and contributed forces to several mentoring teams tasked with training Afghan security forces by partnering with them in the field.

While all this information is well known, very little has been written about combat operations involving Italian forces. At least initially, this was due to the fact the troops sent to Afghanistan were lightly armed and equipped as though their mission would be Kosovo-like peacekeeping. And, indeed, the original UN-sanctioned ISAF mission, as opposed to the OEF effort to overthrow the Taliban and hunt down al Qaeda remnants, was understood as having the more limited mandate of providing security to support efforts at rebuilding the Afghan state. The last thing Rome wanted to talk about was the idea that “providing security” might require more robust military operations.

This is not to say that Italian troops have not been involved in kinetic operations. For example, from mid–March 2003 to mid–September 2003, a contingent of 1,000 Italian troops was involved in Operation Nibbio. Operating out of a base in Paktia, a province on the border with Afghanistan, the Italian forces were tasked with helping coalition forces disrupt efforts by al Qaeda and the Taliban to reinsert themselves into this heavily Pashtun area.[26]

However, the Italian government having sent them—without helicopters, heavy weaponry, or armored land transport—to eastern Afghanistan, there was a limit to what Italian forces could do. As a result, the bulk of their efforts consisted of setting up checkpoints, establishing blocking positions at potential insurgent escape routes, and conducting intelligence-gathering patrols.

Although RC-West (the ISAF designation for the four provinces of Herat, Farah, Badghis, and Ghor over which Italy’s military had overall command for the region) was not a hotbed of Taliban activity by 2006, insurgent activity was increasing in the region. But in an area nearly half the size of Italy and containing more than 2.5 million Afghans, the resources the Italian forces had been provided in manpower, firepower, and transport meant that, even in conjunction with allied forces in the region, fulfilling the ISAF mission of “securing” the region became an increasingly improbable task.

As a result of pressure from both its own military and ISAF allies, Rome did increase the size of the Italian force in RC-West and provided more assistance in terms of armor, jet aircraft, air transport, unmanned aerial vehicles, and attack helicopters. This gave the Italians a greater capacity to engage in blocking operations as the Taliban fled from ISAF operations in nearby Helmand into RC-West and, in a limited number of cases, to participate in operations designed to clear pockets of Taliban in their area of responsibility.

Nevertheless, it is also the case that Italian governments—both of the left and the right—have not wanted Italian soldiers to participate in operations in the more dangerous areas in the south or the east regions of the country. And it was only in 2008 that the Italian government modified its caveat that Rome would have to approve any and all requests for Italian forces to assist coalition forces outside of RC-West by lowering the time allotted for it to respond from seventy-two hours to six.

As with other ISAF contributors, Italy has begun to draw down the numbers deployed to Afghanistan. Because it is pressed financially, Rome would like to reduce the Italian deployment by 1,200 over the next year and gradually wind down force levels to no more than 800 to 1000 troops in country by the end of 2014, with 2014 being the year the Afghan government takes the lead in providing security throughout the country.[27]

Although the Italian military’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan can, at best, be described as problematic, there is no question that the deployments have helped the Italian military in its goal of creating a more professional force. Working with allies in a hostile environment far from Italy has forced Italian forces to “up their game” when it comes to training, logistics, and field-level modernization.

Whether the same can be said for the Italian policymakers who decide how to employ Italy’s military abroad and provide the rationale for doing so is a different question. As the former chief of Italy’s defense staff, General Mario Arpino, pointedly remarked regarding the mission in Afghanistan: “If Italy participates in international missions just to be there, to get a little prestige, but without understanding what the dangers are . . . we risk doing damage to the interests of our country.”[28]

Moving Forward

As noted previously, in 2012, the Italian government has put forward plans to restructure its defense effort to keep it more in line with the resources at hand. According to the defense ministry’s note for this year, “Today’s reality [is marked by a] significant imbalance” between personnel costs and the monies available to keep the military trained, ready, and modernized.[29]

The heart of the plan is to reduce personnel costs, now more than 70 percent of the base defense budget (figure 6), by dropping the active duty numbers authorized from 190,000 to 150,000, and by slicing the civilian work force to 20,000 from its current 30,000. With the cut in force structure, expected savings from eliminated military overhead, and the sale of no-longer-needed infrastructure, the hope is to free up resources for the “investment” and “training” accounts. If successful, the budget’s general parameters would be more in line with what the defense ministry calls its “most significant allies,” meaning 50 percent would go to personnel, 25 percent to modernization, and 25 percent to training and maintenance.

In the short term, however, the defense investment account is taking a beating, with a reduction in spending of 28 percent from 2011 to 2012. (For the individual services and their respective investment budgets, this means a cut of 52 percent for the army, 40 percent for the navy, and 29 percent for the air force.)  Given the 30 percent reduction in defense investments since 2007, the modernization hole is deep and will require a substantial effort to be dug out of.

Moreover, while the 2012 budget increased spending on operations and maintenance and training by 5.4 percent, since 2007, spending in this area had fallen by 40 percent—again, a deep hole to climb out of. According to General Marco Bertolini, commander of the Italian joint operations headquarters, if funds for training were not boosted, Italy would not be able to undertake another mission like Afghanistan; or, as the defense ministry itself notes more prosaically, this year’s increase will still be “insufficient” to meet the services’ needs.[30]

As for the Italian Air Force, the budget reductions have substantially reduced the number of fourth and fifth generation fighter aircraft it will be flying. A decade ago, the initial goal was to replace Italy’s aging fleet of F-104s, AMX fighter bombers, and leased F-16s with a buy of 121 Eurofighter Typhoons, 40 F-35Bs, and 69 F-35As.

The Typhoon order has, however, been cut back to 96, with some 62 now in service; the F-35B buy reduced to 15; and the F-35A purchase pared back by 9.[31] Although these new acquisitions will clearly be an upgrade in individual aircraft capabilities, the fleet itself has declined from 313 fighter aircraft in 2001 to 220 today and, once the 70 or so multi-role, 1970s-designed Tornados are retired from service over the next decade, the Italian tactical fighter fleet could consist of only 150 aircraft.

The Italian Navy is following a similar path. In June 2012, Admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli, navy chief, announced that some 26 or 28 vessels would be retired over the next half decade. And although new and more capable platforms will be added to the fleet, overall numbers will drop as the replacement vessels will not be 1:1 for those withdrawn from service. Indeed, to save the cost of decommissioning the ships, the government is looking to sell them at a discount to other countries or, even, to simply give them away.[32]

Examples of the cuts include: reducing the submarine force from the current six to four (about half the number in 2001), dropping the number of new frigates to be bought from ten to six (leaving the total number of frigates at ten after seven or eight older frigates are pulled from service), cutting minesweepers from twelve to eight, and patrol boats from eighteen to ten. Moreover, plans for replacing the retiring carrier Garibaldi and amphibious transport docks with the much larger carrier Cavour and amphibious assault ships (LHDs) has been complicated by a reduced buy of F-35Bs and the freezing of the LHDs acquisition.[33]

The number of army combat brigades has also shrunk. In 1991, there were 19 combat brigades. By 1997, the number had dropped to 13. Under the new plan, the combat brigades will go from the current 11 to 9. Concurrently, the Italian army has seen the number of tanks cut by more than half since 2001, with an equally substantial loss in numbers of field artillery and mortars. Smaller and less “heavy,” the army hopes to use the savings from fielding a leaner force to upgrade its fleet of attack helicopters, increase the capabilities of its special operations forces, and modernize its inventory of land vehicles.

To maximize the effectiveness of its smaller armed forces, the ministry’s plan is to invest in greater service jointness, enhanced command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) capabilities, a digitalized (net-centric) land force, and upgraded surveillance and target acquisition systems for the navy and air force. And, indeed, other than line items for expenditures on the F-35 program (€548.7 billion) and the final two U-212 submarines (€170.7 billion), the two most expensive programs listed in the defense budget are for programs involving C4I and ground surveillance (€160 billion) and jointness (€154 billion).[34]

Even so, the efforts to enhance the effectiveness of the smaller force despite budget cuts have meant some important programs have “slipped.” For example, delivery of the last pair of U-212 submarines has been pushed back a year, while the timeframe for the planned procurement of medium armored vehicles, multirole helicopters, and various advanced munitions has been shuffled to the right by two to four years.

This collectively suggests that, even with the substantial cuts in the overall size of the military, the number of civilian employees, and no-longer-needed military infrastructure, the margin of error for Minister of Defense Di Paola’s vision of creating a smaller but better equipped and advanced military is a thin one. Unexpected cost increases for major programs, fewer savings from personnel and infrastructure reductions, or further cuts in defense spending to address current deficits in government spending could undercut his plans for Italy’s military.


Under current plans, Italy’s military will retain a wide spectrum of capabilities befitting a medium-sized global power. As such, according to Di Paola, the government will not only have sufficient “hard power” to ensure Italy’s own defense, but a range of military tools from which Rome can pick and choose how it will involve the country in operations abroad. But without strategic airlift and sealift, Italy will in most instances either require a relatively permissive environment to deploy a substantial number of forces or the assistance of NATO allies. Moreover, with cuts in numbers to personnel, platforms, and resources, Italian policymakers will find they have less discretion in where and when they use the military. While the forces themselves might be more capable, a smaller military in a tight fiscal environment will inevitably lead Rome to conserve the capabilities it has.

A decade ago, Rome acted on the unstated but implied quid pro quo that, in exchange for US and allied assistance in stabilizing the Balkans, ensuring energy supplies from the Persian Gulf, and keeping Islamist terrorism at bay, Italy would offer military assistance in places like Iraq and Afghanistan—locales the Italian public, however, did not readily consider vital to Italy’s national security. This dynamic also fit Rome’s sense that it could and should play a larger role on the world stage. But that implicit deal, and the ambition that accompanied it, have gradually come undone in the face of fiscal pressures and the public sense that Italy did not face the kind of immediate threats that required maintaining, let alone increasing, Italy’s defense burden.

However, if the United States follows through on its decision to focus more of its attention on ensuring a favorable military balance in the Asia-Pacific region, and does so by reducing its military footprint in Europe, then countries such as Italy will be expected to do more in meeting their own security needs. And those security tasks appear to be growing, not receding. Not only is Iran’s threat to stability in the Gulf increasing, but the Horn of Africa and large segments of the Mediterranean Basin appear less and less stable—all of which could, and probably will, impact Italy’s security. But with military spending cut to the bone, Italy’s ability to help address those challenges will likely fall short not only of what one might expect of a country its size and economic weight, but also of Rome’s own ambitions at the century’s turn.

Gary J. Schmitt ([email protected]) is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.


Gary Schmitt would like to thank Riccardo Cursi, who interned at AEI in 2012, for his exceptional research in support of this publication.

1. To read the first Outlook in this series, see Patrick Keller, “Challenged for European Defense Budgets after the Economic Crisis,” AEI, July 11, 2011. See also Patrick Keller and Gary Schmitt, “Revitalizing the Atlantic Alliance,” Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2012, and Gary Schmitt, “The West’s ‘Hard Power’ Deficit,” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2012.
2. World Bank, “Gross Domestic Product 2011,”
3. Determining Italy’s level of defense spending is complicated by the fact that the government’s overall defense budget includes funds for Italy’s national military police, the Carabinieri—a force of some 100,000. Approximately a quarter of Italy’s overall defense budget goes to paying for the Carabinieri and the internal security function. At the same time, the defense budget does not include funds spent on overseas operations, such as in Afghanistan; those funds are approved separately by Italy’s parliament. Nor does the nominal defense budget include funds spent by Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development on military procurement and research and development. Although the ministry does not publish the exact amount it contributes to defense-related spending, estimates were that, in 2011, the ministry spent €1.85 billion, and, in 2012, the total will drop to somewhere between €1.30 and €1.67 billion.
4. The FD includes funding for the three military services (army, navy, and air force), training and maintenance, personnel, and weapons development and procurement.
5. Andy Nativi Genoa, “Italy Wants More For Less With Defense Cuts,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, September 3, 2012,
6. The last white paper was published in 1985. See Maurizio Cremasco, “Italy: A New Role in the Mediterranean?,” in NATO’s Southern Allies, ed. John Chipman (London: Routledge, 1988).
7. Italian Ministry of Defense, Nuove Forze per un Nuovo Secolo (Rome, 2001),
8. Italian Ministry of Defense, Libro Bianco 2002 (Rome, December 20, 2001),
9. Italian Ministry of Defense, Il Concetto Stategico del Capo di Stato Maggiore della Difesa (Piedimonte Matese, Italy, April 2005),
10. Italian Ministry of Defense, Ivestire in Sicurezza: Forze Armate: Uno Strumento in Evoluzione (Piedimonte Matese, Italy, October 2005),
11. For the army, this meant an Italian combat land force consisting of ten brigades (three light, three medium, three heavy, and one airborne), with planned modernization of ground combat vehicles and attack and transport helicopters. For the navy, it meant a smaller but more capable fleet, with larger amphibious transport ships, a new aircraft carrier flying F-35Bs, replacing an existing carrier with new amphibious assault ships, and new diesel submarines. And, for the air force, the future fleet would eventually consist of a mix of Eurofighter Typhoons and F-35s, and a sustained deployment capability of 45-50 Aircraft, with four new KC-767 aerial refueling tankers. See Italian Ministry of Defense, Ivestire in Sicurezza . . . ”
12. For characterization of Italy’s threat environment as “multidimensional,” see Il Concetto Stategico . . . ” 10.
13. Italian Ministry of Defense, Nota Aggiuntiva allo Stato di Previsione per la Difesa per l’Anno 2001 (October 2001),
14. Ibid.
15. Italian Ministry of Defense, Nota Aggiuntiva allo Stato di Previsione per la Difesa per l’Anno 2006 (2006),
16. Italian Ministry of Defense, Nota Aggiuntiva allo Stato di Previsione per la Difesa per l’Anno 2002 (presented to the Italian Senate March 18, 2002),
17. Italian Ministry of Defense, Nota Aggiuntiva allo Stato di Previsione per la Difesa per l’Anno 2007 (presented to the Italian Senate May 15, 2007), (accessed September 25, 2012).
18. Italian Ministry of Defense, Nota Aggiuntiva allo Stato di Previsione per la Difesa per l’Anno 2009 (2009), (accessed September 25, 2012).
19. Italian Ministry of Defense, Nota Aggiuntiva allo Stato di Previsione per la Difesa per l’Anno 2012 (presented to the Italian Senate April 2012), (accessed September 1, 2012).
20. “Italy Removes Aircraft Carrier from Libya Campaign,” Defense News, July 7, 2011,
21. For an overview of Italy’s military operations abroad, see Piero Ignazi, Giampiero Giacomello, and Fabrizio Coticchia, Italian Military Operations Abroad; Just Don’t Call it War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
22. John E. Peters et al., European Contributions to Operation Allied Force: Implications for Transatlantic Cooperation (RAND Corporation, 2001), 21,
23. Ignazi, Giacomello, and Coticchia, Italian Military Operations Abroad . . . 76; 140–41. It is useful to remember in this context that, before an international mission is undertaken by Italian forces, the parliament votes on the government’s proposal, which includes the language for the mission’s mandate and the size of the force to be sent.
24. Riccardo Cappelli, “Iraq: Italian Lessons Learned,” Military Review (March–April 2005),
25. Gianandrea Gaiani, Iraq-Afghanistan: Guerre di Pace Italiane (Venice: Studio LT2, 2008).
26. Task Force Nibbio (General Office of the Chief of Staff Office of Public Information, Italian Ministry of Defense,  October 13, 2003), (accessed September 7, 2012).
27. “Italian Defence Minister Visits Afghan Bases as Troops Prepare Handover,” BBC Monitoring Service Europe, September 25, 2012.
28. Vincenzo Nigro, “Arpino: Afghanistan, le Critiche si Fanno a Porte Chiuse,” La Repubblica, July 27, 2007,
29. Nota Aggiuntiva allo Stato . . . 2012.
30. Tom Kington, “Finmeccanica CEO Warns of Italian Defense Cuts’ Consequences,” Defense News, September 28, 2012,
31. Tom Kington, “Italian AF, Navy Head for F-35B Showdown,” Defense News, May 15, 2012,
32. Tom Kington, “Italy Looks to Sell Used Ships, Vehicles,” Defense News, June 4, 2012.
33. The minimum number of F-35Bs required to outfit the carrier was, according to the navy, 22. In an agreement struck with the air force, the navy will be able to borrow F-35Bs from the air force inventory if necessary during a deployment. See Tom Kington and Vago Muradian, “F-35 Base-Sharing Plan Defuses Spat between Italy’s AF, Navy,” Defense News, July 2, 2012,
34. Nota Aggiuntiva Allo Stato . . . 2012, II-1; C/2–14.

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