An American Pilot Is Flying With the Italian Air Force Over Iraq
Exchange program highlights allies fighting the Islamic State
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Jan. 11, 2017, an A-10 Warthog pilot prepared to take off from an air base somewhere in the Middle East for a mission over Iraq. Except the American officer wasn’t flying one of the blunt-nosed attackers.
Air Force Lt. Col. Joe Goldsworthy was in the cockpit of an A-11 Ghibli light attack plane from the Italian Air Force’s 132º Gruppo. The American flier has been attached to the Italian unit since September 2014, according to an official news article.
“The exchange program provides a unique opportunity for the U.S. and our allies to strengthen our ties and learn how the other works,” Goldsworthy told Air Force correspondents. “Lives depend on it in critical situations.”
Goldsworthy’s assignment also highlights how American allies are helping fight the Islamic State. Somewhat surprisingly, European governments have been loathe to talk about their participation in any detail.
In November 2014, the Italian Air Force sent a detachment of Panavia Tornado fighters to Kuwait to hunt for Islamic State fighters, most likely from Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base. There they joined two of Italy’s MQ-1 Predator drones, according to a report by aviation blogger David Cenciotti.
As of 2017, Italy is one of more than two dozen European countries contributing to military operations targeting the Islamic State. But only a handful have sent warplanes and fewer still — Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom — have flown strikes in Iraq and Syria.
The Italian Tornados are primarily fighter bombers, but their pilots did not drop any bombs during the anti-ISIS campaign. Instead, the fliers used Rafael Reccelite reconnaissance pods to snoop for terrorist positions.
The Israeli-made system has powerful cameras that work during the day and can see at night. Mounted in a turret, the sensors can see in all directions and a data link can send the video feed back to ground-based command centers.
By January 2017, the A-11 Ghiblis had taken over this job from the Tornados. And like the Tornados, the smaller A-11s can carry the surveillance pods, one of which was visible underneath Goldsworthy’s aircraft in the official pictures.
For unarmed surveillance operations, the aircraft were an undoubtedly cheaper option compared to the larger twin-engine Tornados. AMX International’s single-engine jet is roughly half the size.
The light planes could carry weapons … if the Italian government ordered it. The A-11 can carry just shy of 8,400 pounds of bombs, missiles and other gear on five pylons under the wing and fuselage. The aircraft have a top speed of more than 650 miles per hour and can fly to targets over 550 miles away and back without refueling.
Of course, Iraq’s contested city of Mosul lies approximately 600 miles away from Ahmed Al Jaber. However, the Ghibilis can refuel in mid-air and Italy has KC-767 tankers in the region as part of its aerial task force.
This theoretically gives the AMX-made aircraft the ability to reach even the farthest corners of Iraq. More importantly, the crews could spend more time in the area gathering vital information before heading back to base.
By February 2017, Italian AMX crews had flown more than 1,500 hours in the region. In addition to the spy missions, the “Black Cats” Task Group reportedly flew training missions with other allied air arms, including teaming up with U.S. Marine Corps’ MV-22 Ospreys on a mock rescue mission.
Along with the air contingent, Italian troops are guarding the precarious Mosul Dam and training Iraqi and Kurdish troops, all part of what the country has dubbed Operation Prima Parthica.
Rome seems committed to the mission.
“Defeating the Caliphate equates to defeating the ideology that these terrorists have disseminated after their successful conquest of that territory,” Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told his country’s aviators in Kuwait in January 2017.
On Feb. 15, 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis thanked Pinotti for Italy’s contributions to American-led missions around the world. “He highlighted specifically Italy’s contributions to the counter-ISIS fight and the efforts of Italy’s carabinieri to train Iraqi police,” according to a Pentagon statement.
Whatever happens, Goldsworthy’s time in the exchange program will end in September 2017. Afterwards, he’ll go back to flying A-10s.
“After three years spent with the Italian air force, I can come away with a completely different perspective,” he said.
“I’m going to be able to go back to the U.S. and share what I’ve learned and broaden the horizons of those around me and make sure we can keep bringing the fight to the enemy with the Italians as close friends and partners.”