6 min read — Analysis | Military | Italy
Sticks and Stones: The Dire State of Italian (and European) Armaments Production
By Stefano Siclari
January 19, 2024 | 8:40
It’s January 3, 2024. Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto is quoted as saying the Italian Navy “only has 63 missiles”. The quote is either a mistake or an outright lie, but the damage is already done: though probably not as low as stated, Italian armaments production and missile stocks are in a worryingly dire state.
A reason for the chronic disarmament of the armed forces
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union two years later has profoundly and undeniably changed the balance of power throughout Europe and, broadly speaking, across the entire northern hemisphere.
The newly formed Russian regime attempted to paint a somewhat nicer picture of itself, which admittedly fooled the West into turning a blind eye to the Russian intervention in the Georgian Civil War (1992), the two invasions of Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2009), the second Russian invasion of Georgia (2008) and, of course, the first invasion of Ukraine (2014-2022), which resulted in the annexation of Crimea and the de facto occupation of the Donbas.
And so, the West let itself go – particularly some countries like Germany and Italy. Building a truly united Europe takes a lot of effort (and a lot of money) and, as our (ie., Europeans’) fears shifted from the communist menace to sparse and localised conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East, we decided that keeping the war machine running at all times was too expensive; instead, we decided to lower production but keep the machine well-oiled and ready to start.
But then, at some point, we must have decided to just put the war machine to rest – to the great dismay of NATO leadership, which rightfully noted our repeated failures when it came to our commitment of 2% GDP towards military procurement and research. Despite the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Israel-Gaza being a rather important wake-up call, most European countries simply failed, and to this day continue to fail, to meet their NATO commitments. Things improved a little since 2015, but most European countries still entered 2024 without their production facilities running at full-scale.
New world, new challenges
And while on the one hand it is somewhat reassuring that our concern went (at least for a few years) from facing total war to solving the climate and energy crises, on the other we must always remember that our political and military alliances are not an immutable reality, but rather exist within the tight boundaries of political will and practical effort. Indeed, the EU and NATO work on a do ut des basis wherein each member is at the same time a guardian of its siblings, and a subject of their care.
For this very reason, anyone paying attention to the international scene should be rather concerned that while countries such as Poland can announce, approve, and finalise the purchase of American M1 Abrams tanks (specifically, the M1A2 variant) within two years and simultaneously look into sealing the deal for the procurement of M142 HIMARS launchers, other countries such as Italy struggle so much with weapons procurement.
So much so that a mere mention of the necessity to uphold the country’s commitment towards NATO as a consequence of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine was enough to drive a wedge between former leader of the populist party Five Stars Movement Luigi Di Maio and his voter base – eventually forcing him to abandon the party as the subsequent party leader (and then Prime Minister) Giuseppe Conte quickly shifting towards Russian appeasement, pushing for a ceasefire and passing the proverbial hot potato to other countries as soon as Russia began to lose ground to the Ukrainian defenders.
Making things worse is the notion that this is nothing new. In fact, we saw the first signs of this trend back when former Prime Minister and former Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi (now leader of the centrist party Italia Viva) pushed for the purchase of over one hundred F-35 fighter jets: while Lockheed-Martin worked to fine-tune the aircraft, the Italian civil society firmly criticised the purchase deeming it unnecessary. Renzi himself had been opposed to the purchase before obtaining his seat.
With the war in Ukraine still raging, Italy has struggled – but still tried – to provide the eastern ally with some military aid. Among long discussions, some bickering on live TV, and the usual calls for neutrality, Italy managed to send some aid. Providing our readers with a comprehensive list is rather difficult as Italian aid to Ukraine is classified, but we can try to narrow it down by using a combination of estimates and observation.
For example, we know that Italy has a relatively low number of tanks which are either variants of the German Leopard 1 (of which about 120 are serviceable, according to available sources) or the indigenously-produced Ariete (around 200 produced, though only 10% of these are believed to be in working conditions). Ukraine does field some Leopard 1 tanks, but surely no Ariete. Italy produced over 200 M109L self-propelled artillery systems which were originally meant to be sold to Pakistan. The sale was never completely finalised however, and about a hundred of such systems were then sent to Ukraine where they received praise by the soldiers operating them. The country also fields five SAMP/T surface-to-air missile systems and of course various aircraft (among which the aforementioned Lockheed Martin F-35, but also the Eurofighter Typhoon and several others). Indeed, Italy has provided military equipment to Ukraine, however long the list may be.
However, when it comes to ammunition rather than the systems using it, things change drastically. Italy, along with it its European allies, is struggling to keep up with the Ukrainian requests and it does not look like the industry can keep up with both the internal and external demands, at least for the time being. Yet, the veil was only pierced when Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto was quoted by local newspaper Il Foglio as casually remarking that the Italian Navy only has 63 missiles. This statement was quickly denied, but the damage was already done: missile stocks, even if not as low as indicated by Il Foglio, are confirmed to be low.
Among the rising concerns about ammunition production and the general state of armaments production, it did not really come as a surprise when Operation Prosperity Guardian – the US-led effort to end the naval blockade enforced against Israel by the Yemeni Houthi rebels in the Red Sea – saw Italy, France, and Spain quickly abandon ship (pun intended). But then something happened, and Italy announced they might participate in a European-led mission by the same objectives. Developments in Brussels have now indicated a possibility that the EU may join the sea mission, but only through ‘low key military support’.
Regardless of Europe’s reasoning for not joining the Operation (until now), it’s safe to say that Europe was caught unprepared by both the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the 2023 Hamas-Israel war which has now escalated to involve Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The European situation appears dire: national leaders struggle to find agreement, ammunition production facilities set themselves targets for 2025 as if any of us could easily stomach two more years of the ongoing wars, NATO welcomes a new member but somehow still appears unable to pressure Russia away from Ukraine.
Though it seems like the EU may be finally getting around to addressing the structural problems facing the continent’s military industry, it has arguably taken far too long to realise them.
Far be it from me to contradict the great Albert Einstein, but at the moment it really looks like it will be World War Three, and not World War Four, to be (mostly) fought with sticks and stones.