Continuing GAR’s series of articles to mark the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the F-16, Paul Dunn takes a look at the only ‘former’ F-16 operator, the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI).
The Italian Air Force (AMI) currently holds one unique distinction in terms of F-16 operations; it is the only former operator of the aircraft, having retired its entire allocation of aircraft on conclusion of their loan period. The F-16 left Italian service in 2012, after a career of just less than ten years.
In the early 1990s, the AMI relied on the Aeritalia F-104S/ASA Starfighter for air defence. Despite being upgraded with more advanced avionics etc, the F-104 fleet was even then starting to show its age and needed supplementing and eventually replacing with a more modern type.
That replacement was scheduled to be the Eurofighter Typhoon, but with that aircraft still some years away from service, a more timely solution was needed. In 1993, after considering several options, the AMI settled on leasing a batch of 24 Tornado ADVs from the RAF for a period of ten years; the Tornado IDS/ECR formed the backbone of its strike fleet at the time, so the ADV was a logical choice.
As the end of the lease period approached, delays to the Typhoon meant that it was not going to enter service in time to assume the air defence role assigned to the ADVs; moreover, the remaining F-104s were approaching the end of their useful lives and a replacement was urgently required. Again, several options were considered, including extending the lease period of the batch of Tornados, but in the end, it was felt that the best solution was to lease a batch of used F-16s from surplus USAF stocks.
In 2001, the Italian government signed a lease agreement for 34 F-16A/Bs for an initial period of five years, with an option for a further five, with the programme being given the designation Peace Caesar. The majority of the batch of aircraft were of Block 15 ADF standard, which had last served with ANG units. Although the airframes were fairly old, they had seen only a relatively short service with the Guard after being modified to ADF standard, so they had plenty of life left in them. The selected aircraft were removed from storage at AMARC and sent to Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill AFB for refurbishment.
The first refurbished aircraft was delivered in 2003, with deliveries complete by the following year. As the aircraft were solely tasked with interceptor duties, they retained their ADF configuration and avionics and eventually equipped a total of three squadrons.
The first AMI unit to receive F-16s was 18° Gruppo, part of 37° Stormo at Trapani-Birgi AB, followed by 23° Gruppo of 5° Stormo at Cervia AB. Third and final squadron was 10° Gruppo, also at Trapani-Birgi AB. All of these units converted from the F-104S/ASA-M.
After the initial five year lease expired, the Italians chose to take up the option of the additional five years, as the Typhoon was still not ready to enter service in sufficient quantities. The F-16 proved to be a useful and popular aircraft in AMI service, and took part in several NATO exercises throughout Europe.
By 2010, the Typhoon was ready to take over air defence duties and the F-16 fleet began to be reduced. First unit to be disbanded was 23° Gruppo, which closed in April 2010, concentrating remaining operations with 37° Stormo. In fact, 10° Gruppo began the process of converting onto the Typhoon shortly thereafter, leaving 18° Gruppo as the final operator of the F-16 in the AMI. Aircraft were gradually returned to the US as the fleet drew down, with the aircraft ending up at Davis-Monthan AFB for storage for the second time in their lifetimes. The final aircraft were delivered back to the The States in June 2012, bringing to an end the short career of the F-16 in Italian service.
In the next article in this series, we will examine the role of F-16s within Air Education and Training Command (AETC) and Air Force Materiel Command.