Under the Radar |

Secret NATO Client of Israeli Spy Planes Revealed

Publicly available documents expose what Israel Aerospace Industries sought to hide: Italy has purchased two more early warning, intel gathering planes and services for $550 million

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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Italian Air Force early warning plane, bought from IAI
Italian Air Force early warning plane, bought from IAICredit: Italian Air Force
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

Israel Aerospace Industries has signed contracts with Italy worth about $550 million for the sale of two more early warning spy planes as well as support and ground logistics services for the Italian air force. The deals, reflected in publicly available documents from the Italian Defense Ministry and the country’s parliament, bring to four the number of special mission aircraft that IAI will have supplied to the Italians.

In July this year IAI announced that it had been awarded a contract for more than $200 million for what it described as the supply of special mission aircraft to a European NATO member country, but it did not disclose which country. IAI is still declining to ‘discuss the identity of its customers’, but a Haaretz investigation has revealed that it is Italy - and that the Italian air force is also the customer in another huge deal announced by IAI in 2020.

IAI’s ELTA subsidiary develops several types of special mission aircraft, mostly based on modified executive jets on which it installs military systems. They include Aerial Ground Surveillance (AGS) aircraft equipped with radar to scan for and locate targets on the ground and for battlefield management; Maritime patrol aircraft to track ships and submarines; SIGINT aircraft for electronic and communication intelligence gathering and electronic warfare – to jam enemy radar and communications systems; and CAEW aircraft which provide airborne early warning and control, along with electronic intelligence capabilities.

In 2021 the Italian Defense Ministry published its intent to acquire two new CAEW spy planes from ELTA. It is based on the Gulfstream G550 business jet, which is then modified for early warning and air control missions. It’s similar to the Nachshon Eitam aircraft that serves the Israeli Air Force. According to reporting in the past, Israel has also supplied four similar planes to Singapore’s air force.

These planes are equipped with radar, advanced sensors and intelligence gathering systems, providing its operator with full situational awareness, ‘air-defense and air-battle management, with continuous 360 degree surveillance of all airborne and maritime threats,’ as IAI described it.

The deal, totalling €209 million ($230 million), was signed in March 2022 and published in the Defense Ministry’s executive measures registry (purchase order 2639). IAI waited until the opening of Britain’s Farnborough Airshow, in July, to announce the deal - without mentioning Italy itself.

Other documents from 2020 reveal a multiyear deal for the purchase of support and logistical services from ELTA for the ground station associated with the spy plane fleet and for their maintenance. The 10-year (2020-2029) services deal, totalling €332 million ($360 million), was signed in May 2020 and published in the registry (purchase order 2617).

Just two weeks later, IAI announced a ‘special mission aircraft related contract’ with a similar price tag, without mentioning who the customer was. A month later, for the first time an Israeli business jet used by senior IAI executives landed at the Pratica di Mare spy plane base south of Rome.

Singapore Air Force early warning plane produced by IAICredit: Singapore Air Force

Italian fleet: from green to blue-and-white

The pair of new planes will join the two early-warning aircraft that Israel supplied to Italy during the prior decade as part of a huge bilateral transaction signed in 2011, which also included the sale of a satellite for the Italian army. For its part, the Israel Air Force purchased dozens of training planes from the Italian firm Leonardo.

The Italian air force is in the midst of a multistage procurement program to replace old special mission aircraft and to reinforce its aerial intelligence fleet at the 14th air-wing near Rome. The first phase of the acquisition program is expected to be completed in 2032 and the planes are expected to remain in service until at least 2040 and as late as 2056.

Italian Air Force early warning plane, bought from IAICredit: Italian Air Force

The program aims to address Italy’s wish to better manage real- time battlefield information - in the air, on land and at sea. "The E-550 CAEW is an extraordinary multi-sensor system, a sort of 'flying command post' which, through aerial surveillance, command, control and communications functions, is able to offer the Italian Defense Forces a decisive operational contribution to achieve information superiority," the former commander of the Italian air force, Alberto Rosso, said.

According to the Italian Defense Ministry’s plan that was submitted for parliamentary approval, the air force has planned to purchase another eight Gulfstream jets (in addition to the two already in its possession) and to gradually convert them for use for various special missions. The lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, approved the plan in 2020 and the Senate followed suit in 2021.

According to David Cenciotti, a veteran aviation journalist, Italian pilot and editor of The Aviationist, in addition to the two CAEW aircraft that are to be modified by ELTA, Italy is buying six more so-called “green” (unequipped) jets and they will be gradually modified in the future by U.S. firms, including defense giant L3Harris Technologies, to carry airborne intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare (AISREW) systems. The first plane landed in Italy in March.

According to the plan, Italy wants one early warning plane in the air at any given moment – meaning that it needs a fleet of four such planes. It plans on purchasing one or two additional aircraft that can also supply aerial defenses to its forces deployed around the world. ELTA has already supplied two such planes, and it now will provide two more. In addition, Italy wants at least two signals intelligence planes.

Italy’s ELTA supplied aircraft have already participated in exercises with NATO member countries and in operational activity. In March, one of the two planes was spotted on its first intelligence gathering mission for NATO in Eastern Europe. The plane flew for about four hours along the Romanian, Moldovan and Ukrainian borders in a pattern most likely associated with IDing and mapping Russian forces that invaded Ukraine. According to the Italian air force, in the past two years, the planes have flown 650 missions and have racked up a cumulative 4,362 hours of flight time.

The first customer for ELTA’s special mission aircraft was Israel, of course. The 122 Squadron of the Israel Air Force has been operating five Nachshon planes, some of which are Eitam models, of the type that Italy purchased. Others are Shavit models, which are used to gather electronic intelligence.

In April of last year, the Israel Air Force celebrated the arrival of its first Oron model Nachshon plane, a more advanced special mission plane that, according to IAI, “will provide the Israel Defense Forces unprecedented Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities… to generate comprehensive, real-time intelligence assessments of the deployment of enemy forces and terrorist organizations at short and long ranges”.

Despite the celebrations, ELTA still hasn’t completed the installation of the surveillance systems and according to prior reports, the plane is expected to be operational in the coming months.

To track the Italian special mission planes in real-time, click here, here and here.

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