The Italian military is taking on a greater role in Africa, while reducing its presence in Asia and the Middle East.

Italian soldiers in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan. Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty ImagesBy Amanda Lapo, Research Analyst, Defence and Military Analysis Programme

While NATO member states are re-focusing on an assertive Russia, Alliance countries on its southern flank also continue to face other significant challenges, none more so than Italy. Since the beginning of 2018, Rome has committed personnel to five new or enlarged African missions, while Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti in January this year defined the country’s strategic interest as the ’expanded Mediterranean’. She identified this area as the Balkans, the Near East and North Africa, as far as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.

The defence ministry’s operational budget for missions in Africa has been raised by 7% to support Italy’s increased commitment to this activity. There remains, however, uncertainty over the longevity of Italy’s overseas operations, at least until its yet-to-be-formed coalition government agrees on policy in this area (the 4 March elections resulted in a hung parliament).

Of the five missions, the enhanced Libya mission and the deployment in Niger are bilateral, while Italy will also contribute to the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), the European Union military training mission in the Central African Republic (EUTM RCA) and the NATO mission in Tunisia.Italian deployments in Africa. Credit: IISS

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The Italian government is extending and broadening its Libya mission, including its regional medical operation, known Ippocrate, the coastguard support mission and its overall capacity-building effort. The Bilateral Mission of Assistance and Support in Libya 2018 includes an additional 100 soldiers and the deployment of a further 130 vehicles. This capacity-building mission aims at improving the Libyan armed forces’ training levels as well as repairing and returning to service several Libyan patrol ships and C-130H Hercules transport aircraft. In combination with the Safe Sea maritime-security operation, which was recently extended to Libyan territorial waters, the overall goals of the bilateral mission are to counter terrorism and human trafficking, and to control migration.

Similar aims underpin Italy’s mission in Niger, with a contingent of 470 troops to be deployed in two tranches. This mission is of particular importance to Italy, as the country lies at the crossroads of a migration route, while the region is also struggling with Boko Haram terrorist activity. It is possible that RQ-1 Predators, from the 28th UAV squadron, will be deployed to this mission, allowing Italy to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations on both sides of the Niger–Libya border.

The personnel and financial implications of an increasing Italian presence in Africa is counterbalanced by a progressive reduction of its military personnel deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. Italy’s contribution to NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan is planned to reduce from 1,037 to 900 personnel, while Operation Prima Parthica will see the withdrawal of 700 troops and the reconfiguration of its air component.

Reflecting renewed Alliance concerns with Russia, Italy continues to contribute to NATO deployments among its eastern members. Italy has taken rotating command of the Very High Readiness Task Force and is contributing to the Baltic Air Policing mission in Estonia with Eurofighter Typhoons from the 4th Wing at Grosseto and the 36th Wing at Gioia del Colle. Furthermore, Italy has renewed its commitment to deploy to Latvia a mechanised infantry company from the 5th Alpini regiment as part of the Canadian-led Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup. As Pinotti stated during her visit to Latvia in September 2017, ’this mission is fundamental to show how Italy is committed to NATO at 360 degrees’.

In 2017, as shown in the IISS Military Balance+, Italy took part in as many military missions as Germany and almost twice as many as Spain, making it a significant contributor to international peace and security. Italy also has more personnel deployed, at just over 5,000, than either Germany (just over 3,800) or Spain (some 1,700).

However, the extent of future Italian overseas commitments is uncertain. As a result of budgetary constraints, funding for these missions is only guaranteed until September 2018. After this, continued support will be dependent on any new government’s policy. The leading parties in the March 2018 general election appear reluctant to maintain a substantial military contingent overseas. The extent to which this view could affect current deployments may begin to become clearer once President Sergio Mattarella appoints a new prime minister.

This analysis originally featured on the IISS Military Balance+, the online database that provides indispensable information and analysis for users in government, the armed forces, the private sector, academia, the media and more. Customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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