The Italian Air Force’s Trapani Air Base is home to the 37° Stormo and the 18° Gruppo. It is one of the most important geo-strategic hubs in Europe. With its Eurofighter Typhoon fleet, the air base plays a key role in safeguarding the Mediterranean region. We were granted exclusive access to the base. As soon as you enter the 18° Gruppo’s building you’re immersed in history. The pictures on the walls trace the key milestones of a unit that was established in 1917. The history of the squadron is a bit peculiar; periodically reborn when needs require and disappearing when they end.Words And Photos: Giovanni Colla

Prominence of Trapani

In recent years the geo-strategic importance of Trapani-Birgi Air Base in Sicily was highlighted by the 2011 Libyan crisis when the air base provided vital support for air operations. During the crisis many believed that the end of operations in Libya would leave the base facing an uncertain future. However, the experience gained during operations underscored the importance of Trapani Air Base in the region and the decision was taken to requip the unit with the Eurofighters.

Following the delivery of the first aircraft in Oct 2012, there was an intense programme of training and requalification, involving pilots and maintenance personnel.

Once the Eurofighter acquisition was completed and Final Operational Capability was achieved the squadron started its operational-training activities by integrating into the Eurofighter community. From 2013 operating procedures and capabilities were tested through a series of national and international exercises and deployment. With the arrival of the new aircraft there was also a change in organization of the maintenance.

Maintenance is entrusted on a STR – Servizio Tecnico Rinforzato (Reinforced Technical Service), in line with the 18° Squadron Commander. The STR autonomously ensures all 1st and 2nd Technical Level maintenance tasks. The squadron is supported by the 936th GEA of the 36th Wing of Gioia del Colle, for some 2nd level advanced technical maintenance. This reduces technical time and encourages efficient decision-making, which in turn guarantees greater efficiency and flight hours. In fact, the squadron produces about 2000 flight hours every year with a very low percentage of aborted missions.

The mission of the 18° Gruppo, as for the other units equipped with the Eurofighter (4th Wing of Grosseto, 36th Wing of Gioia del Colle and 51st Wing of Istrana), is the defense of the Italian airspace. Missions take place either under NATO command and, in support of NATO operations, or under the aegis of the national Government.

Under NATO the squadron is committed to covering NATO’s southern sector 24/7 for about a week a month, sharing this task with Gioia del Colle (36th Wing), so in a calendar month Gioia del Colle covers three weeks and Trapani one; in the remaining three weeks the squadron provides QRA which goes from sunrise to sunset. 

The main task of the squadron remains air superiority, however, in recent years the Italian Air Force has enhanced Eurofighter’s air to ground capabilities, investing significant resources in terms of expertise, men, preparation in both flight and ground personnel.

“The swing-role capability of the Eurofighter is now a reality,” says Maj. Gianluigi ‘Cash C, Commander of the 18 Gruppo.

 “The crews are trained, and the aircraft has responded well in all its operations. The deployment in Kuwait, under the aegis of the Inherent Resolve/Prima Parthica operation confirmed, at an international level, the ability of our aircraft to be able to operate both in the air to air and air to ground domains or more precisely, in the role of reconnaissance. A clear example of this  was the simultaneous redeployment of the Eurofighter in Kuwait and Romania, where it carried out the surveillance of Romanian airspace on behalf of NATO.”

 Pilots Trained for Every Mission

The majority of training missions are performed by employing ‘dummy’ weapons, thus enhancing the training output. Missions generally take place in segregated working areas, where air civilian traffic is highly restricted. “Training at the firing range remains an integral and fundamental part of a pilot's professional growth” said Maj. Gianluigi “Cash” C.

An important aspect in improving the Air to Ground capabilities of the Eurofighter was a change to the training process. 

“Over the years the process of becoming an air to ground and, subsequently, multi-role pilot has changed. Initially it was a process of converting pilots already trained under an air to air profile, integrating their training path with air to ground training.” 

Until last year it was a duty of each wing and their Qualified Swing-Role Instructors at the squadron to train the new Eurofighter pilots in the A/G role with three different phases: Air Interdiction, learning the bomb release techniques, Precision Targeting, learning how to use the targeting pod and ISR-Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance to acquire capability with the RecceLite pod.

 “Now, new pilots undergo a swing role rotation at the 20°Gruppo OCU – Operational Conversion Unit, ensuring that when they go to their operational squadron they can immediately carry out any type of Eurofighter mission,” explains Maj. Gianluigi “Cash” C.

“The training process includes the use of the flight simulator which allows pilots to acquire confidence in the management of the on-board systems before the actual use in flight.

"The training takes place with a 'building blocks' approach, so once the necessary confidence with different roles has been acquired, these are joined to form the swing-role pilot.”

Of course, the pilot’s next scenario is unknown: this is one of the major challenges faced by NATO. So, Eurofighter pilots have to be current in any possible mission role, giving the Italian Air Force an employable “tool” in the majority of foreseeable scenarios.

The Italian Air Force Eurofighters fleet includes Tranche 2 and Tranche 3A, both upgraded to P1Eb configuration, while the Tranche 1 F-2000s have been upgraded to ITA Mod 4 configuration that allow the use of the RecceLite pod for ISR missions.

 In terms of armaments the Italian Eurofighter has the AMRAAM missile, and IRIS-T IR-guided missile for air-to-air mission, with the GBU-16 Paveway Laser Guided bomb and GBU-48 Enhanced Paveway Dual Mode (GPS and Laser guided) for air-to-ground. The Phase 2 Enhancement (P2E) package will bring a range of new, long-range capabilities.

“P2E is planned to be available from the end of 2020 and will certainly have important and structural improvements that will change the concept of using the Eurofighter,” explained Maj. Gianluigi “Cash” C. 

P2E will increase the air-to-ground capability enabling stand-off targeting of high value assets through the integration of the Storm Shadow Air-to-Surface cruise missile; while in the air to air domain the addition of the Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air missile will augment the Beyond Visual Range capability, providing enhanced capability against a variety of targets such as agile fast jets, Unmanned Air Vehicles and cruise missiles.

Over the last eight years, the 18° Gruppo has achieved important results, growing professionally in terms of personnel and in the use of the aircraft in the various roles. With the passing of the years the importance of an advanced base in the region, one step away from the current ‘hot’ areas of the world, has become clear. The commitments of the 18° Gruppo continue to be many and varied: exercises, air policing and other activities.

 "The required standard is maintained thanks to the efficiency, passion and dedication of the staff,”  says Maj. Gianluigi “Cash” C.

“Thanks to everyone’s constant commitment, we are able to ensure the smooth running of daily activities and the normal training of the pilots. In addition, planning and scheduling remain the most important tools in the daily life of a fighter squadron: planning ahead of schedule allows you to better organize the training of pilots ensuring their promptness and effectiveness.

“The results we have been able to achieve so far are manifold: from the Air Policing in Iceland, to the hot sand of Kuwait, passing through Romania and the Baltic States, not to mention the countless exercises around Europe and the 2016 Red Flag exercise in the United States.

"The multiplicity and diversity of the commitments we have managed to support over the years, as a squadron, as a wing and as a Eurofighter line, underline the importance and maturity that this aircraft and this Gruppo has achieved."