By Riccardo Catalano.
Special operations in the Italian military is a tradition that goes back to World War 1, with the first group of “Arditi” (those who dare) born in 1917. This unit was an attempt to give an impulse that could change the stalling situation of the trench warfare. Following World War 2, where both the Army and the Navy employed special forces teams with good results (particularly the Navy with its successful raids against the British fleet), the Italian military slowly but steadily improved its SOF capabilities.
During the cold war, Italian special forces acquired more and more skills, benefitting from the integration with their NATO counterparts and also growing in size. At the time of the USSR dissolution, the Army had a SF battalion (9 Battaglione d’assalto “Col Moschin”) as a part of the Airborne “Folgore” Brigade, while the Navy had a group of frogmen (Gruppo Operativo Incursori).
It was not until 2003 that the Italian Air Force created their Special Operation Wing called “Reparto Incursori Aeronautica Militare”. The tradition of special warfare in the Italian Air Force wasn’t entirely new. In fact, during World War 2, the Royal (at the time) Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) trained a battalion of commandos/saboteurs called “Arditi Distruttori Regia Aeronautica” (ADRA). The unit was initially established to participate in the assault on the British fortress of Malta in the Mediterranean, a real thorn in the side for German and Italian armies in North Africa. The assault on the isle of Malta, as we know, never took place. The ADRA battalion was instead sent on an ambitious sabotage mission in Libya, where two airmen (later decorated with silver medals) managed to infiltrate an allied airfield near Bengazi and destroy 25 B-24 Liberators on the ground.
Today’s Air Force’s “incursori” (raiders) take on the legacy of these brave men. When the unit was established in 2003, the first operators came from the Combat Search and Rescue squadrons and from the SERE Training Center in Furbara, near Rome. The AF special warfare candidates, in the units first years of existence, were sent to the Army’s 9th Regiment “Col Moschin” to attend the 80/B special forces training course. Later on, the unit, which meanwhile changed its name in 17th Raiders Wing (17 Stormo Incursori), achieved its own training “self-sufficiency”.
The 17th has the size of a regiment and is organized with three groups, each the size of a battalion. It consists of a SF group (Gruppo Operativo), a training group (Gruppo Addestramento) and a support group (Gruppo Servizi di Supporto). All the candidates who qualify and obtain the sand colored beret and the ADRA dagger, continue their training and qualification courses while part of the Gruppo Operativo, the operational “arm” of the wing. The operators attend courses for military free fall operations, sniper, breacher, combat medic, JTAC, portable UAS pilot, Combat Controller, Combat Weather Observer, and many others.
Like all the Italian special forces, the 17th Wing is under the functional command of the COFS – Comando interforze per le Operazioni delle Forze Speciali (Joint Special Operations Forces Command). JSOFC has the responsibility to organize and conduct all the special operations for the Italian military as well as to define SOF doctrine and training. While all the units in the Italian special warfare community can execute the broad spectrum of missions typical of the special operations, each one has a unique area of expertise. For the 17th, this is defined by the Special Operations Air to Land Integration doctrine.
T-AF SOF operators have the primary mission of acting as a force multiplier for the air power, conducting missions like the assault of an enemy airfield and target acquisition for Air Force assets. The most unique capability of the 17th Wing is, without a doubt, deployed by the Combat Controller Teams who provide air to ground communications, close air support, and air traffic control in non permissive areas. In a community where the Army and the Navy have always had an advantage, given their long standing tradition in special warfare, the Italian Air Force has the difficult job to differentiate its special operation forces and convince, the always reluctant generals, that there is a place for special warfare in the Air Force.
Looking at the experiences from the global war on terror, is undeniable that for a country like Italy, special warfare has become a fundamental asset, more important than ever. This can only be achieved by specializing and focusing on air power related missions, where the traditional affinity towards technology of the Air Force can definitely be an asset.
Author: Riccardo Catalano is a former SGT in the Italian Air Force. He is now a copywriter and editor.
Photo: Wikipedia. Photo of Army parade in Rome, June 2, 2006. Festa della Repubblica Italiana. Mixed company of incursors and air riflemen 17 Stormo “Incursori”. Photo by Utente:Jollyroger – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=833474