Sunday, May 1, 2011

Army, Navy aviation and the Air Force: the Italian experience

Army Aviation – the Italian experience

The AVES (AViazione ESercito – Army Aviation) is the italian equivalent of the Army Air Corps, and operates the whole fleet of attack, utility, transport and command support helicopters that are used in operations by the Italian Army. 

The AVES is a formation of Divisional rank, commanded by a Division General coming from the helicopter formations and under the control of the COMTER (Comando Terrestre – Land Forces HQ), the equivalent of the british army’s Land Forces HQ. The division builds on two Brigades, the Army Aviation Brigade which is the operative branch of the corp and the Training Center for Army Aviation, tasked with the preparation of personnel. Two more regiments of attack helicopters depend from the AVES, even though they are subject to the command of the Army Air Mobile Brigade “Friuli”, roughly in the same fashion of the Apache regiments that in the UK are part of the 16 Air Assault Brigade. There are then four regiments of Logistic Support and Services, which keep the helicopters working and flying.

The AVES employs the A129 Mangusta attack helicopter (60), the Chinook (16 CH47F on order, being assembled by AgustaWestland for 900 millions euro, including five years of support and logistics. These new Chinooks will replace the remains of the old fleet of earlier models, which had once been almost 40, but have dramatically fallen in numbers in the years, and probably 22 at most are still in use), the NH90 TTH (Tactical Transport Helicopter, in Italy known also as ETT Elicottero Trasporto Tattico)(60 are being acquired).
The NH90 will progressively replace the fleets of AB-205 (ESC3 – Combat Support Helicopter 3), AB-412 (ESC5) and AB-212 (ESC4). The Army also operates the A109E, as a scout and in training. 

The Mangusta is a home-grown attack helicopter. It is said that the name "Mangusta" was chosen because the manguste  (Mangooses) in nature beat the cobras... and the Mangusta was designed in order to beat the performances offered by the US Cobra attack helicopter. Not a great example of politically correctness, especially if we think that the UK dropped the plan of calling one of the Bay class LSD(A) Abukirk Bay, because that would sound offensive to the french ally. The A129 Mangusta CBT has been selected by Turkey for its requirement for an helicopter gunship.

The AVES also has a fixed wing unit with 3 Piaggio P180 Avanti II and 3 Dornier Do 228. These are mainly used for small transport duty and regional transfers.

The AVES maintains around 20 helicopters in Afghanistan, working in the Herat sector. The Aviation Battalion deployed counts 10 Mangusta attack helicopters, 5 CH47D Chinook, and 6 AB-205, an Agusta-Bell development of the immortal UH-1 Huey. Recently, the Navy has provided three of its Utility AW101 Merlin helicopters as well.
Of course, not all the machines are available at any one time: normally, the AVES will have available 8 Mangusta, 3 Chinooks and 4/5 AB-205. The Mangusta normally flies with a couple of HeliTOW missiles (to be replaced by Spike LR in the coming years) and with 250 rounds for the 20 mm gun. Auxiliary fuel tanks are also carried, and the flight time in the worst hot and high conditions is of roughly 130 minutes.

In average, each month the AVES provides 125 flying hours for each Mangusta, 60-70 for each Chinook and 60 hours for each AB-205. The AB-205 can carry up to 11 soldiers, and is armed with two MG42 7.62 mm machine guns at the two side doors. A special stretcher with a defibrillator and other life-saving devices has been acquired for the AB-205 to give it a Forward MEDEVAC capability, which when provided to an operation ensures a 5 minutes response time for the stabilization and evacuation of the injured soldier, which is brought away from the fighting and then transferred on a MEDEVAC helicopter at the FOB. The Forward MEDEVAC mission uses two AB-205, one carrying the stretcher, medical equipment, the medic and at least a nurse, while the other carries a rifle squad. The maximum load is for six “simple” stretchers + 3 crewmen. The AB-205 can also lift a maximum load of 1414 kg under slung, or 1000 kg internally.

The AB-205 role is comparable to that of the Lynx AH9 for the british forces: it flies Reconnaissance, patrol and convoy escort duties, scouts ahead to identify suitable landing zones, inserts teams of soldiers to secure the LZs before the thick of the force comes, moves around small squads for flanking ops and operates as a flying command post during operations. It can be fitted with the M27 kit which replaces the MG42 with M134 miniguns, or carry two pods with M134 minigun and 7 x 70 mm rockets each when needed as a support firepower platform. 
The AB-205 is an Agusta variant of the immortal Huey. It will be replaced by the NH90, after many, many years of good service.

The AVES supports its helicopters in theater with a variety of logistic arrangements and kit: one of the most interesting is the GB SM12. This is a 4 wheel drive professional vehicle, designed to operate in military areas to supply all the needs of combat helicopters.
The vehicle is:

- Tow tractor for helicopters
- Weapon loading – on front side. It can move pretty much anything from auxiliary fuel tanks to gun turrets, rocket pods and HELITOW missile launchers.
- GPU for engine starts 28 Vdc
- Supply of electric current 115 Vac
- Maintenance platform
- Crane for engine and parts maintenance

This machine has been completely designed from Barberi, in collaboration with AGUSTA and the Italian
Army. It is actually primarily employed on A129 CBT helicopter and can work on airfields but also on unprepared, rough terrains, in order to establish wartime FOBs wherever possible. It can be carried inside a Chinook or Merlin, or under slung from those.

An SM12 is used to mount an auxiliary fuel tank on a Mangusta attack helicopter during Live Firing training in Sardegna. The SM12 can support an helicopter doing almost anything, from towing it to providing continuous and alternate electricity.

Prior to the arrival of the Navy’s AW101, the Italian helicopter force in Afghanistan has been, for some time, an uniquely Army affair.

The Airmobile Brigade of the Italian army provides a company of helicopter-trained soldiers on a continuous base, while a second company for the role, to ensure that the Quick Reaction Alert is granted rotating between the platoons of each company, is taken from the other infantry regiments deployed in the area. Whatever company is chosen, it is given a month of training and preparation which includes the rudiments of the SERE, roughly equivalent to the UK’s Survive Escape Resist Extract training. When this Army platoon is called into action with the helicopters, it comes under TACON (tactical control) from the AVES Aviation Battalion for as long as it travels on the helicopters. If the operation on the ground is supported by Mangusta and other helicopters, then the platoon goes under complete OPCOM, Operation Command, of the AVES.    

Air Force and Navy Aviation

The Italian Air Force, on its part, operates a Combat SAR formation using venerable HH-3F helicopters, which are used to rescue personnel downed in enemy territory and/or in support of special forces operations. L’HH-3F is a development of the venerable Sea King SAR, and is around from 1977 no less. Following also a couple of helicopter losses in 2008, included a deadly incident which killed all 8 men on board, the Air Force is now planning to retire the HH-3F and is acquiring a fleet of 12 (+ 3 options) AW101 Merlin in a Combat SAR formation. These Merlins will be capable to carry a crew of 6 men, plus up to 20 Special Forces operators, while employing 3 M134 Gatling machine guns at the side doors and rear ramp. Armor is also being installed to the crew seats, gunner positions and vulnerable areas of the helicopters. A number of other helicopters (of the AB-212 type) have been used and are used in range of support roles to the activity of the air force squadrons.

The Navy aviation has a further fleet of utlity helicopters (10 NH90 and 8 Merlin for Utility/Amphibious Support roles), employs 6 AW101 Merlin in AEW role, 9 more in ASW role, and is taking delivery of 46 NH90 in configuration NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) for replacing the older platforms in the embarked ASW and ASsW roles. From 2008, however, apparently the Navy figure has gone down by 6, to 40 NFH. The Navy also operates 14 AV8B Harrier II + and 2 twin-seat trainers (the pilots are sent training on Cherry Point, in the United States, however) and uses a fleet of 6 (originally 18) Breguet Atlantic MK1. Pilots can come from the Air Force as well as from the Navy Air Force, but the airplane is Navy owned and under naval forces command. Four ATR 72 Marittime Patrol Aircrafts have been ordered to support and partially replace the aging Atlantics, but a full replacement programme is not yet underway: the P8I Poseidon is on the wishlist, but economic considerations might favor the purchase of further ATR planes, to better specifications. A simpler ATR variant is also used by the Coast Guard service in support of SAR activity.

The NH90 is costing Italy a total of 3895 millions euro, for an indicative cost of 33.5 millions (up to 35.5 if the Navy acquires just 40) for each airframe,  and a TTH has been lost in an incident during an air show in 2008. For the TTH variant the cost is actually indicated in “19 millions for airframe”, but this is of little help in determine the actual cost, since it probably leaves in a separated count the cost for the training, the support and the logistics/spares. 
The NH90 TTH will be the new workhorse of the AVES when deliveries are completed. Sadly, Italy has had the "honor" of the first incident of the new helicopter at international level: one was lost during an air show, ditching in the lake of Bracciano in 2008, an unlucky year for the italian helicopter community which saw a few grave incidents. The pilot died.

The Italian TTH variant is armed with two side-mounted M134 Gatling miniguns. Maximum troop capacity is 20 soldiers, and payload can be as high as 2500 kg under slung. The Navy variant uses MU90 lightweight ASW torpedoes and Marte anti-ship missiles.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Everybody can comment on this blog without needing a Blogger account. It is meant to keep the discussion free and open to everyone. Unfortunately, anonymous accounts keep the door open for spammers and trolls, so i'm forced to moderate comments and approve them before they appear. Apologies for the inconvenience.