The Cavour aircraft carrier will carry out F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) qualification off the U.S. East Coast.
The Italian Navy Cavour aircraft carrier is about to start qualification with the new F-35B, the STOVL variant, of the Lightning II jet. The flagship of the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) is set to reach Naval Station Norfolk in mid-February to start F-35B qualifications with the U.S. Marine Corps, Naval News reported.
According to journalist Xavier Vavasseur, the imminent trials were announced by Captain Gianfranco Vizzini, Naval Attaché at the Italian Embassy in Washington DC, during the Surface Navy Association (SNA) 2021 virtual Symposium: “The major issue for 2021 is the ITS Cavour, our major carrier, that will be deployed here in the United States for what we have called ‘Ready for Operation Campaign’ that consists to achieve the qualification and to conduct joint and combined maritime operations by embarking F-35 Bravo air assets. The campaign will be executed in close cooperation with the U.S. Navy but especially U.S. Marine Corps. The unit is expected to arrive in Norfolk in a few weeks, actually half of February.” Captain Vizzini said.
The Cavour aircraft carrier has just completed maintenance and modernization works required to accommodate and operate the F-35B Lightning II aircraft which started in 2018. In the U.S., it will be involved in a 6-week training with an embarked U.S. Marine Corps detachment. After becoming an aircraft carrier qualified with the 5th generation STOVL aircraft, one of the steps required to achieve the IOC (Initial Operational Capability) of the aircraft carrier with the new jet, the 27,000-ton ship will set sail back to Italy, where the aircraft carrier will embark an Italian Navy F-35B, the third to be delivered to the Italian naval service: the first two F-35B jets, assembled at the Italian FACO (Final Assembly and Check Out) in Cameri were handed over to the Marina Militare in 2018 and 2019. These were then transferred to MCAS Beaufort, home of the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B pilot training.
For a more detailed breakdown of the Italian Navy F-35B program you can find more details in this article, published here at The Aviationist in February 2020. Here’s an excerpt:
The Italian Government is currently procuring 90 F-35s, 60 of those are F-35As and the remaining 30 ones are F-35Bs. Out of those 30 F-35Bs, 15 will go to the Navy and 15 to the Air Force. The Lightning II will replace the Navy’s ageing AV-8B+ Harrier II and will be embarked on the Cavour aircraft carrier and the new LHD Trieste. It is not completely clear, however, where the F-35s will be land-based.
The Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati “Wolves”, which will operate the F-35B within the Navy, is currently based in Grottaglie, close to the naval port of Taranto, home to the Cavour aircraft carrier [and to the Trieste landing helicopter dock (LHD), in the future]. However, according to some reports, the Italian Defense Chief of Staff has already identified Amendola Air Base, the MOB (Main Operating Base) of the F-35A within the ItAF (about 100NM northwest of Grottaglie), as the national MOB for both the CTOL (Convetional Take Off and Landing) and STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) versions of the Lightning II. This should prompt the relocation of the “Wolves” to Amendola, creating a joint Air Force/Navy flight line with common logistics and training, even though it would practically mean that the entire force would mostly be under Air Force control.
With both Italian Air Force’s and Navy’s F-35Bs based at Amendola AB, the Italians would replicate the British model that sees RAF Marham as MOB for a jointly manned “Lightning Force” made of Air Force (with the 207 and 617 squadrons) and Navy (with the 809 Naval Air Squadron that will be re-established in 2023) personnel, sharing aircraft, equipment and support infrastructures. The creation of an Italian Joint Lightning Force makes much sense: aircrew training, maintenance and at least part of the logistics could be concentrated in one place, with some significant savings. And if the selected base is Amendola, the Italian Joint Force could leverage at least some of the infrastructures built there to accommodate the Lightning. Indeed, preparation to host the F-35 in Amendola started in 2012 and today the “F-35 citadel” is literally a “base inside the base” with modern shelters and buildings located inside an access-controlled restricted zone created to isolate the 13° Gruppo’s area from the rest of the base. It must not be forgotten tha the advent of the F-35 has induced the Italian MoD to adopt tighter security measures than those in place before the arrival of a 5th generation technology and this becomes pretty evident if you think that all the photographs taken inside Amendola, must be reviewed one by one by security personnel so that no sensitive detail would be leaked. For sure, making Grottaglie ready for the F-35B would cost a lot of money and time, considered that the works to prepare the base for the Joint Strike Fighter were halted a couple of years ago.