Italian armed forces - restricted budget, more missions

Posted in NATO | 16-May-07 | Author: Franco Apicella

Franco Apicella is member of the WSN International Advisory Board.

Istrid (the Institute for Defense Studies, Research and Information) – one of the few Italian think-tanks on defense policy – hosted on 9 March ’07 in Rome a seminar on the subject “Italian defense: ambitions and resources”. The first speaker, General Pasquale Preziosa, in charge of programming and finance at the Italian Defense General Staff, focused essentially on two major points: the fact that the total number of military personnel is adequate - albeit not with the right balance among its various component elements- and that financial resources are insufficient.

To support the kind of commitments we have seen in the past 10-15 years (an average of 10,000 – 12,000 men deployed to three theatres of operation), the Italian armed forces should be able to count on approximately 190,000 personnel (128,500 for the operational component and 60,000 for support) plus 35,000 civilians. In terms of the present situation, however, there is considerable imbalance among volunteer personnel (an excess of approximately 20,000 fixed term recruits and a shortage of over 40,000 long term volunteers) and among NCOs (a shortage of almost 27,000 sergeants against an excess of over 40,000 warrant officers). So the current theoretical total of 190,000 men is adequate only in overall terms.

Financial resources on the other hand are definitely insufficient. Against a European average of 71,000 Euro per soldier investment, Italy spends 17,500 Euro. The figure for overall per soldier spending is more encouraging: 61,500 spent per soldier in Italy against a European average of 112,000. Overall defense spending in Italy is 40 per cent less than the European average. The only positive note is the improvement in the ratio between operating and investment expenditure and personnel expenditure: the 72 per cent of the budget spent on personnel in 2006 has been reduced to 61 per cent for 2007.

In this situation, inter-service rivalry is almost bound to surface, though Italian Defense Chief of Staff Admiral Di Paola did say in his speech that “This attitude has long since become a thing of the past”. Therefore even if we take for granted the ability to employ human and financial resources efficiently, it is still necessary to decide how much to invest in technology and how much in “boots on the ground”.

The Navy and the Air Force vigorously defend their programs: the Eurofighter jet, the C-27J transport aircraft, the Cavour aircraft-carrier, the Fremm frigate. The Army says these programs are oversized for real needs, while its training and recruitment for ground units are endangered by budget constraints that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Meanwhile, however, the “Forza Nec” program has been launched, with the aim of gradually achieving complete digitalization of all land forces.

The Italian defense budget has one basic problem. Major procurement programs are started up and funded over a number of years by ad hoc measures. Expenditure for out-of-area missions is approved separately every six months. Everything else falls under the annual finance bill; but this “everything else” includes personnel and training expenditure. One can give land forces new technology, even using ad hoc funds, but the number of men still remains a key factor, and no amount of technology can take the place of the soldier’s operational readiness, which can be achieved only through education and training.

The problem of the imbalance among the various categories of personnel is also mainly an army issue. The Italian way of life does not yet provide those conditions of labor mobility which in other countries, the United States for example, make it possible for military personnel of all categories, at any time in their career, to transfer with relative ease to civilian jobs. To discharge tens of thousands of military personnel would create an unbearable social problem. It would be far more reasonable to exploit those qualities of versatility and enthusiasm that are typical of the Italian soldier. In this way adjustments could be made to roles and tasks, which would in any case no longer be so categorically rank-related as in the past.

But before considering the financial problem and the personnel issue there is the political problem. In order to understand what Italian ambitions for defense policy are, it is worth recalling some recent events: the withdrawal from Iraq, announced by the last government and implemented by the present government, the leading role taken in expanding the Unifil mission in Lebanon; the “stay the course” policy in Afghanistan, including the caveats on the employment of troops and assets. The proactive role that was played in the Lebanon crisis by deploying a joint task force at short notice would appear to indicate ambitions of an expeditionary nature, if not of power projection. The cautious approach adopted in Afghanistan, on the other hand, tends to depict the Italian contingent deployed in Kabul and Herat as a mere peacekeeping facility, limited by employment constraints and perhaps vulnerabilities.

Admiral Di Paola is perfectly right to complain about the lack of a Defense White Paper produced by the government and approved by Parliament: “The attention paid by Italy to this issue is zero, or close to zero”. For the moment we have to make do with indications, declarations, broad outlines, which “are expected to lead to our becoming a coherent part of a broader European and allied system”. Lastly, Di Paola asks a provocative question: “Are we to be coherent with them (European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, ed.), or not even with them? Do we want to be coherent with a third-world country? If that is the indication we receive, that is what we will do. In any case from the politicians we must receive some indication: that is the basic point”.

Franco Apicella is a Lieutenant General (ret) of the Italian Army. His last job in duty was Chief of Staff of the Italian Land Forces Command. As a senior defense editor he provides regular contribution to the webzine Pagine di Difesa.