Storm Chasing in Italy – Tornados in the Aeronautica Militare (AMI)

Since the three countries that formed Panavia launched the MRCA (Multi-role Combat Aircraft), the resulting Tornado has been at the forefront of the German, British and Italian Air Forces right up until the advent of the Eurofighter EF-2000 Typhoon. Pixelsnipers visited Ghedi and Piacenza air bases in Italy to have a look at the latest developments in the Italian Air Force.

The formation of Panavia

In 1965 Great Britain and France decided on the collaborative development of a modern fighter aircraft with variable wing geometry, but as France withdrew in July 1967, Great Britain was forced to look for new international partners to realise the project. In the same year NATO representatives from Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada discussed the co-operative development of a new “unity-fighter-aircraft”.

The participating nations founded a joint working group (JWG) in January 1968, which was also later joined by Great Britain. The first Memorandum Of Understanding (MoU), defining the Concept Phase was signed on 17th July 1968 by representatives of Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherland and Canada. The working title of the project was MRCA 75 (Multi Role Combat Aircraft 1975) focused on a twin engine double seated aircraft with variable wing geometry.

Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands withdrew from the project in October 1968, after the feasibility study had been commenced. In the meantime, the three nations, Germany, Great Britain and Italy decided to create a dedicated company, Panavia Aircraft GmbH, which was constituted on 26th March 1969 and based in Munich, Germany.

The new consortium had the responsibility of managing the design and development of the weapon system, with the physical production and development of the prototypes carried out at the principle sites of the aerospace companies which were partners in Panavia, more specifically FIAT Aviazione (later Aeritalia, now Alenia Aermacchi), British Aircraft Corporation (later British Aerospace now BAE SYSTEMS) and MBB (later Deutsche Aerospace then EADS, now Airbus Defence and Space).

The design phase of the Tornado project was characterised by the search for the optimal solution, taking into consideration the various requirements of the three armed forces. With the “roll out” of the first production aircraft at Warton in the UK on 5th June 1979, the final production phase of the programme commenced, subdivided according to National requirements between the three principal facilities of the industries which formed the Panavia consortium, specifically the Warton/Preston facility of the British Aircraft Corporation, the Manching/Augsburg plants for MBB and Turin/Caselle for Aeritalia.

Italy’s Tornadoes

Italy’s first prototype Tornado first took to the air on 5th December 1975, with the first production aircraft being delivered on 25th September 1981. The Aeronautica Militare (AMI) received a total of 100 of the Tornado Interdictor Strike (IDS) variant, including twelve trainers with dual control, sixteen of the IDS aircraft later being converted to the Electronic Combat and Reconnaissance (ECR) variant, which began deliveries on 27th February 1998.

Initial Pilot training for the AMI was undertaken at the Tri-national Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) which opened at RAF Cottesmore on 29th January 1981; here pilots would train in the classroom for four weeks and then transition to 9 weeks of flying training. The AMI had 6 Tornado IDS (T) trainer versions permanently based at Cottesmore during the lifetime of the establishment, with the first arriving on 5th April 1982.

Brief Operational History:

• Took part in the first Gulf War with 8 IDS aircraft being deployed to Al Dhafra, Abu Dhabi for Operation Locusta. One aircraft lost with aircrew captured by Iraqi ground forces.
• 22 IDS/ECR aircraft deployed in support of Operation Allied Force over Kosovo in 1999, with the IDS used for bombing targets and the ECR patrolling the region acting as enemy anti-aircraft radar suppressors with a total of 115 AGM -88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM) being fired.
• In 2010 four IDS aircraft were deployed to Afghanistan in response to rising tensions during the build-up of the Afghan Parliamentary Elections.
• IDS and ECR aircraft took part in enforcing the UN no-fly zone over Libya during 2011.
• On 14th November 2014 it was announced that 4 aircraft were to be sent to Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait in support of operations against the Islamic State.

In 2010 a major upgrade was initiated to extend the service life of the Tornado which will incorporate new digital displays, night vision goggles, MIDS LINK 16 communications capability, full integration with the RecceLite pod and integration with the AGM-88E and GBU-39 weaponry. The Tornado IDS/ECR will eventually be replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35, until then the Tornado will soldier on with the final phase out being planned for 2025. Recently, due to a renaming process in the AMI, the Tornado became officially known as the A-200.

6˚ Stormo (Wing) Brescia-Ghedi Air Base.

Situated in the plains of the Lombardia Region in north-west Italy, Brescia-Ghedi AB is located just outside the towns of Ghedi, Castenedolo, and Montichiari.

Used in the First World War as a staging field for Ansaldo S.V.A. and Pomilio PE reconnaissance aircraft, these were used to photograph the enemy infrastructure. On 21st May 1918 two S.V.A’s from Brescia-Ghedi flew to Friedrichshafen to do a photographic survey on the construction site of the Zeppelin.

During the early stages of World War Two the base was home to Fiat BR20 and CANT Z.1007 bombers until 1943 when Mussolini’s newly formed Italian Social Republic took over and the base was tasked with air defence, so fighters were drafted in, these being the FIAT G.55 and Macchi M.C.205. In 1944, with the unification with Germany, Brescia-Ghedi was totally renovated with tracks, workshops and bunkers being built along with a vast upgrade in ground based air defences, V-1 launch sites were also built and the Luftwaffe at the beginning of October 1944 based two squadrons of Messerschmitt BF-109s, as well as a squadron each of Junkers Ju-88 and Ju-87Ds.

At the end of World War Two the Brescia-Ghedi was in very poor condition from attacks from allied aircraft and on 29th April 1945 the American Fifth Army occupied the base and turned part of it into a prisoner of war (POW) camp. In 1951 the Airfield was reactivated as the headquarters for 6˚ Stormo flying the North American P-51 followed by the Gloster Vampire up until 1952.

In recent times the base is shared with 704th Munitions Support Squadron and is responsible for the receipt, storage, maintenance and control of U.S. war reserve weapons committed to NATO’s 6˚ Stormo Italian Wing.

Subordinate units:

102˚ Gruppo OCU A-200 Tornado IDS Training Squadron
154˚ Gruppo FBX-Strike-Recce A-200 Tornado IDS Fight-Bomber and Reconnaissance Squadron
156˚ Gruppo FBX A-200 Tornado IDS Fighter-Bomber Squadron

6˚ Stormo (Wing)

Also referred to as ‘Red Devils’, was formed in January 1936 at Campiformido, flying the Fiat C.R.32, C.R.42 and G.50 under the name 6th Air Brigade, with a move to Brescia-Ghedi Air Base in 1951 and between 1956 and 1964 flew the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak transitioning in 1963 on to the much loved Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. The wing flew the F-104G right up until the introduction of the Tornado IDS on 28th August 1982 , with 154˚ Gruppo being the first to receive the airframe.

Operating three squadrons of the Tornado IDS aircraft (102˚, 154˚ and 156˚ Gruppo) at Brescia-Ghedi, 6˚Stormo have a total of around 43 airframes all at varying stages of their Mid-Life Upgrades (MLU). 154˚ and 156˚ are tasked with attack and reconnaissance whereas 102˚, with the closure of the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore back in 1999, is now tasked with the training of future aircrews using the remaining twin-stick IDS (T)’s in the fleet as the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). 102˚ also retains the same combat roles as the other two squadrons.

On 19th August 2014 whilst on a routine training exercise two Tornados from Brescia-Ghedi collided over Ascoli Piceno resulting in the death of all four crew members.

50˚ Stormo (Wing)

Piacenza-San Damiano Air Base is located in the military town of San Giorgio Piacentino near the hamlet of San Damiano, about 15 km south of Piacenza.
Established as an airfield on 28th March 1938, 13˚ Stormo made the base its home in the July of that year. Later between 1942 and 1944 the base was used by the Luftwaffe to train pilots resulting in new infrastructure being built. Between 14th and 25th May 1944 the airfield suffered heavy bombing from allied forces and after this never reached full operational status again. In March 1945 following the retreat of the German Army a bomb squad littered the base with explosives and destroyed it completely.

In March 1952 the Aeronautica Militare (AMI) began reconstruction of the base and it was used regularly for training until October 1963 when 155˚ Gruppo made the base its home. On 1st April 1967 50˚ Stormo was established and was equipped with the Republic F-84 Thunderstreak until 1973 when they transitioned onto the Lockheed F-104S Starfighter.

On 12th October 1973 155˚Gruppo moved to Istrana resulting in 50˚ Stormo being stood down and the base turned over to the Airport Command until 1st November 1988 when the wing was stood up again with the return of 155˚ Gruppo and being equipped with the Panavia Tornado.

Subordinate units:

155˚ Gruppo ETS EA-200B Tornado ECR Electronic Warfare and Tactical Suppression Squadron

Piacenza-San Damiano Air Base has been home to 50˚ Stormo since 1st April 1967, with 155˚ Gruppo already being in residence flying their Republic F-84F Thunderstreaks since 1963. Between 1967 and 1973 the squadron transitioned onto the Lockheed F-104S Starfighter. 155˚ Gruppo moved to Istrana on 12th October 1973 under 51˚ Stormo until 1st January 1985 where it was reassigned to 6˚Stormo at Brescia-Ghedi for conversion onto Tornado. One final move from Brescia-Ghedi to Piacenza-San Damiano and a reassignment from 6˚ Stormo to 50˚ Stormo saw the unit go full circle back to where it all started.

The variant of the Panavia Tornado jets that is least talked about but has ended up playing an equally vital role as the IDS variant is the Tornado ECR. Operated only by Germany and Italy, the Tornado ECR was originally conceived as a dedicated high speed recon platform, but evolved into a specialized SEAD platform – SEAD standing for Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses. The continuous growth of Soviet and Warsaw Pact air defense forces during the 1980’s and their fielding of ever more advanced surface to air missiles made the development of electronic warfare platforms of paramount importance. Tornado jets, as a platform in widespread use at the time, made for a logical choice in this respect.

Modelled after the ‘Wild Weasel’ aircraft pioneered by the United States during the Vietnam War, Tornado ECR fighters carry anti-radiation missiles that home in on the radar transmissions of search and targeting radars used by surface to air defences to aim their weapons. Tornado ECRs are also equipped with powerful radar jammers that interfere with the operation of radars that haven’t been destroyed by the anti-radiation missiles. Such aircraft play a critical role in modern air operations, confusing and degrading opposing air defence capabilities in order to allow the primary strike aircraft to reach their targets.

Operating the one squadron , 155˚ Gruppo ‘Black Panthers’ are equipped with the ECR variant of the Tornado and specialise in the task of suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) and unlike the Interdictor Strike (IDS) variant the back seater is an electronic warfare officer (EWO). His responsibility is to manage and monitor the tactical situation and handle the offensive and defensive weapons.

Thanks go to Mike Green of Jetwash Aviaition Photos for organising this visit.