An investigation into publicly available ministry documents by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz disclosed what Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) wanted to keep a secret: the Italian defense ministry contracted the company to purchase two conformal airborne early warning and control (CAEW) aircraft for $550 million.

In late July, IAI announced a $200-million CAEW sale to a European NATO country without revealing the customer’s identity.

The firm also withheld the client’s name two years earlier when announcing a $350-million sale of the aircraft.

It’s now been revealed that the Italian Air Force is acquiring the planes as part of a multi-stage procurement program to replace its fleet of special mission aircraft and reinforce its aerial intelligence fleet based at the 14th air wing near Rome, Haaretz wrote.

The first phase of the program is expected to run until 2032, while the aircraft are expected to remain in service until at least 2040, possibly until 2056.

IAI/ELTA Special Mission Aircraft. Image: Israel Aerospace Industries

10-Year Support, Maintenance Deal

Documents accessed revealed a 10-year deal signed in May 2020 “for the purchase of support and logistical services from Elta (IAI’s subsidiary) for the ground station associated with the spy plane fleet and for their maintenance.”

The latest deal takes the number of special mission aircraft IAI will have supplied to Italy to four, with two already in service.

IAI supplied the first two early-warning aircraft to Rome under a contract signed in 2011, Haaretz wrote.

IAI/ELTA Special Mission Aircraft
IAI/ELTA Special Mission Aircraft. Image: Israel Aerospace Industries

Italy’s Procurement Plan

A total of eight Gulf Stream jets are to be procured (in addition to the two already in service) and gradually converted for various special missions, according to an Italian Defense Ministry plan approved by Parliament in 2021.

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Citing The Aviationist, the Israeli newspaper added that Rome would buy six more aircraft frames after the recent Elta deal and have them converted into special mission planes by US firms such as L3Harris Technologies.

The Italian government wants one early warning aircraft in the air at all times, which would require a fleet of four such aircraft, the outlet reported, citing the government plan. Italy plans to purchase up to two aircraft each for aerial defense and signals intelligence.

Business Jet Outfitted With Military Systems

Elta Systems Ltd. develops four types of special mission aircraft to perform air-to-ground surveillance; maritime patrol; signals intelligence, early warning, and air control.

The aircraft are modified business jets outfitted with military systems, including advanced radar, sensors, and intelligence-gathering systems.

The CAEW plane Italy has bought is based on a modified Gulfstream G550 business jet airframe.

The aircraft is equipped with AESA radar, Identification, a Friend or Foe system, signals intelligence, and communication systems for air and maritime situational awareness.

According to Air Force Technology, the aircraft “provides rapid target acquisition and target information with total 360° coverage…by using the placement of a number of conformal antennae combined with dynamic beam allocation to the targets.”