Italy’s new ‘license to kill’
War. Italy will soon be the second European power, after the U.K., to wield lethal, American-armed drones. But despite their inaccuracy and yet another encroachment of U.S. foreign policy in Rome, few in Parliament seem to care.
The State Department and the Pentagon have said yes. Italy is now the only country in the world, after the United Kingdom, to receive American missiles and bombs to arm its drones (or UAV) . Yet Italian politicians have generally received the news (first reported by Reuters) of Rome’s expensive, lethal purchase with silence.
The biggest supporter on the American side is Secretary of State John Kerry, who, since 2012 when he was a U.S. senator, has publicly favored lethal drone sales to Italy. Congress, on the principle of consent by silence, now has 15 days to contest the Obama administration’s decision, but it is highly unlikely it will. From that moment, the ball will be in the hands of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who will presumably sign several confidential agreements and complete the purchase.
According to Reuters, the U.S. government will procure from General Atomic and resell to Italy 156 Hellfire missiles (produced by Lockheed Martin), 20 GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, 30 GBU-38 JDAM bombs and other weapons for a contract initially estimated at $129.6 million (€ 119 million).
Italy will thus arm two MQ-9 Reaper drones with 14 air-to-ground missiles and two bombs per mission. The Reaper drone has a nine times more powerful engine and is twice as fast as the better-known Predator drone.
To the cost of the ammunition, add at least $30 million for personnel training and software upgrades. And it is virtually certain, given Washington’s obvious regard for Rome, that Italy will be among the first chosen to buy the 2018–2020 evolution of the Reaper — the Predator B-RPA — at a cost of hundreds of millions more.
Additionally, Italy only received two of the six Reaper armaments it asked for, leaving the possibility that more bills could be coming from Washington in the near future.
The Italian Air Force has waited four years for this day. The government of Silvio Berlusconi asked for the weapons first in 2011, and every subsequent prime minister repeated the request without a word or consent from Parliament.
Today the only critical voice comes from Donatella Duranti, the top-ranking Defense Committee member of the left opposition party (Sel): “We oppose the purchase of tools of war that have little to do with defense and which have a very high margin of error between military and civilian targets. We ask [Defense] Minister [Roberta] Pinotti to report urgently to the Chamber because the Parliament and the country have the right to evaluate the opportunity to buy armed drones, knowing what will be used and how and for what purpose it will be used.”
Mrs. Pinotti responded today in an interview with Corriere della Sera newspaper. A journalist asked, “The U.S. has given the green light to arm two Reaper drones. Are we going to use them?”
Pinotti responded, citing Italian “dignity” as the main reason to buy explosives. “The Italian request to the Americans was also motivated by a sense of dignity in the alliance,” she said. “We repeated it because we think we’re old enough to decide for ourselves how to use them. We do not need caregivers. Of course, we will perform a technical study and exercise parliamentary procedures should they become necessary.”
Meanwhile, former Air Force Chief of Staff Leonardo Tricarico — in an interview with the Italian news agency Adnkronos — came out unequivocally exulting the utility of drones and even suggested firing missiles at smugglers transporting migrants and refugees from North Africa.
“There is not yet a perception of the fundamental role that drones play in modern asymmetric conflicts. Military doctrines are certainly being re-written from scratch. Drones can easily carry out missions to combat criminal organizations that profit from immigration.”
Tricarico is sure: “It’s a no-brainer for the Air Force, which has been using drones for 11 years, to distinguish between a fishing boat and a craft used to smuggle migrants, thanks to intelligence capabilities that can guarantee a virtually perfect success rate.”
Interviewed by Lettera43 website, general Tricarico gave more details: “There is a small group of people, less than 10 soldiers, who is already training, secretly, with the armed drones”.
Too bad for the general, though, that the The Drone Papers published last month by The Intercept prove exactly the opposite. The toll of “unmanned” war is bleak, according to confidential Pentagon documents: Ninety percent of the victims are either never identified or were mistaken targets.
Recently, Mario Platero on Sole 24 Ore raised criticisms over the use of lethal drones, saying Italy could use them in close cooperation with the U.S. — turning the Italian military into a mere extension of the Pentagon.
The use of killer drones in the Mediterranean, at least in the short term, is corroborated by another U.S. decision this week, reported by El Pais on Nov. 5, to send five huge Global Hawk reconnaissance drones to Naval Air Station at Sigonella, in Sicily.
In Europe, only Italy, France, Germany and the U.K. have Reapers. France has deployed them, unarmed, in Africa, and London uses them in Iraq. Washington’s authorization to Rome seems to employ Italy as a political-economic ice-breaker, as it was for the F-35 and Eurofighter jets production.
It is no coincidence, perhaps, that in May the defense ministers of Italy, France and Germany signed a memorandum that envisages by 2025 the production of a military drone manufactured entirely in Europe, the first early declaration of an enfranchisement from U.S. military technology.
The Italian Reapers are flown by the 28th group “Witches” of the Air Force’s 32nd Wing (an Italian reportage here), a group that’s participated in an intense schedule: Afghanistan, Iraq, the Mediterranean, Kosovo, monitoring ISIS in Kuwait, and anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa from Djibouti.
But contrary to common sense, they have also flown over Italian skies. Indeed, according to an agreement signed a year ago by the Air Force, the police and the Carabinieri, unarmed Predators can be used “to control events, stadiums, roads, highways and monitor specific areas.” In 2007, Predators guarded a Russian-Italian summit in the coastal city of Bari and, in 2009, the G8 in L’Aquila. According to unconfirmed reports from American sources, drones were also used in anti-Mafia operations in Sicily.
Together with Sigonella in Sicily, the main Air Force base of the Italian drones is in Amendola (near Foggia in Apulia), an airport recently renovated and night flight adapted by the Department of Defense.
While politicians pretend not to know, the military continue to move in time and do whatever it takes.
- Originally published in Italian at il manifesto on Nov. 06 2015