The quality of defence spending is crucial, along with the available budget, because future challenges require less uncertainty and short-sighted plans. Both can be favoured by leveraging the connection with European partners, the most virtuous example being the Eurofighter consortium.
When it comes to the enabling technologies of the future, though, Italy has long been characterised by inefficient spending. Nonetheless, AI systems and the likes ultimately benefit both the military and civil sectors and can therefore push the entire system forward. That’s according to Frank Spina, managing director of Northrop Grumman Italy.
Mr Spina, there is much debate in Italy around military spending and how to reach the set target of 2% of GDP. Discussions among insiders focus on the quality of the expenditure. What’s your take on that? And what items do you feel have been most overlooked?
Italy is part of a system that’s called upon to protect our own and partnering nations, now more than ever. The time when we were referred to as the beneficiaries of a “free ride” is over. Our geographical position in the international arena is no longer a reason for unconditional support.
In the case of Italy, the quality of spending is as important as the budget. In the past years, ineffective spending on the enabling technologies of the future has penalised our country. This has reduced our presence in global markets, and we have lost the opportunity to see our solutions applied in both the consumer and military worlds.
We must not underestimate the dual nature of the [defence] systems. Although they are born and developed in the military environment with great effort, they can also find practical applications in the consumer world. Such a paradigm would guarantee both quality and cost-effectiveness, as in other countries.
As for increasing expenditures, is it important to shift the focus towards modernisation programmes? How would that benefit the country?
Modernisation programmes should not be underestimated, by Italy or our European partners, if the aim is to guarantee national protection. Defence capability will no longer be based solely on the number of forces in the field but on the quality of the systems, which – for instance – must be integrated with the space domain.
However, this mustn’t lead to a proliferation of duplicates, which would be detrimental to European systems’ performance and integration capacity. AI, combined with new materials tech, allows for the modernisation of mission capabilities aimed at saving as many lives as possible. That’s a research path capable of opening up to the civil market, transferring applications that would change our daily lives. For instance, the same AI systems can power a city’s road traffic management and a defence scenario.
In terms of development, it’s clearly essential to adopt medium to long-term planning that is synergistic and coordinated between politics, the armed forces and industry. Is there more uncertainty on this matter as of today?
Although we are experiencing a conflict, the prospect of which was at least remote for the western world, we are not testing our systems’ effectiveness on the battlefield. Therefore, there is a clear need to link what we do to the activities of other nations (the Eurofighter initiative is one example). Regarding defence and industry, European consortia can reduce the uncertainty that characterises the Italian system, in which sudden government changes do not allow for a coherent medium-term vision, making it difficult to pursue a policy consistent with the needs of our defence mission.
Strengthening Italy’s defence industry also entails invigorating Italian excellence and capabilities in dealings with European partners and international cooperation programmes. As an industry representative, do you think more needs to be done?
Continuous comparison drives progress. However, excellence must be supported by integrating it with international systems to produce ever stronger islands of excellence. Let’s hope that our major national players will focus on their mission, effectively measuring their spending and economic return in the country.