The U.S. State Department has granted the Italian Air Force permission to begin arming the country's American-bought MQ-9 Reaper drones, a full four years after Rome first asked the White House for permission. The authorization, which will arm the General Atomics-built unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs, makes Italy the second country after the U.K. to be get blessings from Washington.
The $129.6 million deal, which is considered a small defense contract by U.S. standards, will still need to be authorized by Congress, according to a Defense News report from Thursday evening.
While Italy will be pleased to be able to arm its drones, the permission is bittersweet.
“It seemed impossible that a loyal ally could be ruled out, while the U.K., with its lesser UAV capacity, could be given permission immediately,” said Gen. Dino Tricarico, a former Italy Air Force chief and current head of the ICSA think tank in Rome. “In Afghanistan, we would have saved Italian lives if we had had armed drones.”
Without weapons, the drones have recently been deployed to help spot migrant vessels sailing from Libya to Italy, and over the last decade, they had been used in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and regions in Africa, including in Libya during the 2011 NATO air operations.
Italy currently contributes a Predator drone and a Reaper drone for the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) Mediterranean operation, which was set up this year to assist in efforts to stop human traffickers cramming migrants onto unstable boats that then attempt to cross the Mediterranean. The crossing is dangerous and has seen thousands perish in their attempts to reach European shores.
Now that the drones will be armed, they could find service in Iraq, where Italy is a part of a coalition trying to bomb the Islamic State group.
A U.S. Defense source told Reuters that the green light on armaments was “symbolic of our trust in Italy as a partner," adding, "Italy is a responsible member of the international community and they have been with us in every significant recent NATO and U.S.-led operation.”