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On 1 June, Italy’s new government took office. Because the two new coalition partners are anti-establishment parties with no previous government experience, international analysts collectively predicted a gloomy future for the country. But the very next day, on Italy’s national holiday known as the Feast of the Republic, Italy was back on good form. The famous Bersaglieri infantry soldiers conducted their distinctive jog, their musicians managing the feat of playing the trumpet while jogging. Fighter jets flying in formation over the capital formed the green-white-red national flag; Italy seemed like a well-oiled machine. But in their coalition agreement, the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Stars Movement) and the Lega (formerly the Northern League) barely mention defence. That is perhaps no surprise, given that both parties have pledged to put Italy and Italians first – and that means focusing on, for example, job creation. Potential cuts to defence capabilities would significantly harm not just Italy’s armed forces, but its standing at home and abroad.
Less than a week after the government led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took office, the Italian armed forces inaugurated another new foreign mission. Together with the Hellenic (Greek) Air Force, the Italian Air Force will protect the skies of Montenegro, NATO’s newest member, which lacks the resources to do so itself. That is the latest of 24 current or planned missions involving Italian troops. But until the 1990s, Italian armed forces were barely present on the international stage. ‘When Italy participated in the first Gulf War, the navy was caught unprepared and struggled to send two ships to the Gulf as it had been focusing on the Mediterranean’, Stefano Stefanini, a veteran Italian diplomat whose final posting was as the country’s ambassador to NATO shared with the author. ‘And during IFOR [the Implementation Force in Kosovo], where we served under British command, we didn’t have enough officers who spoke English’.
Twenty years later, Italy has more troops on foreign deployment than any other European country except the UK. Indeed, from having been solely focused on territorial defence during the Cold War, the Italian armed forces have undergone a remarkable transformation and now make a crucial contribution to regional security. Sure, the US has more than 60,000 troops permanently based in Europe – but among European NATO member states, Italy’s contribution looms large. According to statistics from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, Italy currently has 5,000 troops on foreign deployment – far more than Germany (around 3,800) or Spain (around 1,700). Some 600 Italian soldiers are serving as part of the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, along with some 900 with Resolute Support Afghanistan. Nearly 300 Italian sailors (along with two ships and two aircraft) are part of NATO’s Sea Guardian mission in the Mediterranean; another 500 or so are deployed in Niger. Until May, the Italian Air Force helped protect the Baltic states’ air space as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing. Italy has even dispatched 162 soldiers, along with 50 vehicles, to Latvia as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence mission, aimed at deterring Russian aggression in the Baltics.
Remarkably, the armed forces have completed this transformation despite frequent political turmoil at home; they may, in fact, be one of the most stable institutions Italy has. They have withstood Italy’s difficulties: the country’s traditional parties are in turmoil; economic growth is expected to decline from 1.6% last year to 1.1% in 2019; labour productivity is low; and over the past five years, half a million Italians have emigrated. Yet, the country’s armed forces have taken on extra responsibilities.
The decision to participate in the Montenegrin air policing mission was made by the previous government, but it is a good reminder to Prime Minister Conte’s incoming team – especially Defence Minister (and reserve officer) Elisabetta Trenta – of the wide-ranging nature of the Italian military’s international operations. As soon as the government took office, rumours began circulating that it planned to reduce the armed forces’ international deployments, starting with their participation in NATO’s Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan. Italy was until recently the largest European troop contributor to Resolute Support; Germany now tops the ranking.
These international engagements are expensive: in 2016, for example, the Italian armed forces spent around €200 million on their Afghanistan operation, nearly €430 million in the Mediterranean and some €157 million in Lebanon. Trenta could easily cut the missions, and argue that it is another country’s turn to shoulder such heavy burdens.
This would be a mistake. Cuts to Italy’s international operations would be bad news for Italy’s allies, who would then be expected to shoulder the task. But most of all it would be bad news for Italy – because the armed forces provide unique ‘bang’ for Italy’s ‘buck’. ‘Our foreign policy relies heavily on our armed forces’ international capacity’, Stefanini noted. ‘And at the same time, in recent years the armed forces have gained a better image in Italy itself, and are now seen as a positive institution that represents the unity of Italy’.
Though positive institutions that represent the unity of the country are important for Italy, there worryingly few of them present in the country today. As Admiral Giampaolo di Paola, who was chief of defence from 2004 to 2008 and defence minister from 2011 to 2013, and subsequently chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, put it: ‘International military operations are one of the few opportunities we have to play a large role in international affairs. We’re not Germany or the UK, not to mention the United States. International military operations are one of the few strong cards we have’.
And the armed forces are a cheap strong card. Last year Italy spent 1.13% of its GDP on defence, a far cry from NATO’s two per cent benchmark. That the armed forces manage to do so much with €13.21 billion is an achievement, yet any reduction in funding would surely jeopardise the future of Italy’s cost-effective military outreach.
There’s no disputing that Italy faces countless challenges that require the government’s attention – from high levels of youth unemployment to sluggish economic growth in the south. It is also beyond doubt that other European countries should shoulder more of the responsibility for sustaining stability in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East, all areas in which Italy is virtually a ‘frontline state’. But Italy can maintain its positive image abroad – which has been put into question by the election of Conte’s government – if the government stands by its military’s large international role. And it is just possible that, despite its Italy-first focus, Conte’s government may decide that the numerous and expensive international missions are an asset. Di Paola, who also served as defence minister from 2011 to 2013, noted that at the recent NATO ministerial meeting, Trenta announced no additional cuts to Italy’s Afghanistan presence. Instead, she will stick to the 200-man cut planned by the previous government.
Apart from offering Italian politicians a strong calling card, the Italian military’s international operations may provide – albeit indirectly – some protection from criticism that Rome has persistently failed to meet the two-per cent of GDP target for defence expenditure set out by NATO. ‘We keep saying that contributions are as important as cash’, said Di Paola, referring to NATO’s triple target of defence spending (cash), capabilities and contributions. ‘It would be suicidal to then cut our contributions. Besides, we’re asking our allies to focus more on the Southern Flank. Then we can’t cut our own presence there’.
Indeed, having Italy as the ‘reliable policeman’ of the Southern Flank is not a bad role to play in global politics.
BANNER IMAGE: Italian air force airmen carry more than 30 Allied and Partner Nations’ flags during a ceremony before the start of the Trapani Air Show at Trapani Air Base, Italy, Oct. 19, 2015. Courtesy of US Air Force/Airman Luke Kitterman
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other organisation.