Toward a More Dynamic Italian Military


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call for European countries. Against the backdrop of a systemic shift in European security, Italy has accelerated a process of force modernization and defense policy review. Indeed, Italy’s military expenditure has been rising since 2015, reaching an estimated budget of 28.7 billion euros ($30.4 billion) this year, or 1.54 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Rome plans to reach NATO’s 2 percent benchmark by 2028, according to a much-debated decision by the government of then-Prime Minister Mario Draghi in late March. The 2022 to 2024 defense planning document released by the Italian Ministry of Defense in July anticipates that Rome will reach the current NATO average of 1.64 percent by 2024, inflation permitting. 

This endeavor is a testament to Rome’s commitment to its role in NATO and as a major security provider in the broader Mediterranean region. At the same time, Italy’s recent defense spending has also highlighted some important vulnerabilities. As the new government inherits a defense agenda full of priorities, there are several key areas where they should work to improve. First, Rome should bolster interoperability and cooperation with allies and partners through more joint training and exercises, particularly in the Mediterranean. Second, it should harmonize budget expenditure among the three core defense functions, with more emphasis on training and maintenance. Third, updated contract schemes and easier public-private professional reintegration would help in tackling existing personnel-related challenges. Finally, the government should foster a more open public debate on defense by incorporating the private sector, civil society, and academia.

Investments and International Commitments

Rome’s long-term commitment to defense is best exemplified by its focus on military investment. This year, Italy will earmark 27 percent of its defense budget for investments — a substantial 30 percent increase — and plans to stay the course over the next few years. The investments’ nature has also received attention, as Italy follows a quality-centered approach that prioritizes technologically superior projects and high-end capabilities. Chief among them is the ambitious Tempest program — recently endowed with 1.8 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in funding — in which Italy will cooperate with the United Kingdom and Japan to build a sixth-generation fighter jet. Other major investment initiatives include new space-based strategic communications as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, the modernization of the land forces’ heavy vehicle component, and the acquisition of new amphibious LxD units for the navy. 



These choices reflect two major objectives. The first is to prepare the armed forces for high-intensity, near-peer scenarios after decades of asymmetric threats and counter-insurgency operations. The second is to harness the country’s very capable defense industry and seize opportunities for the national economy and its most digitalized value chains. The focus on multinational defense projects, whether as part of E.U. defense initiatives such as the Eurodrone or at a transatlantic level, is a way for Italy to stay at the forefront of defense technology, share the associated costs, and strengthen cooperation with allies and partners. 

The new minister of defense, Guido Crosetto, is well acquainted with these issues and unlikely to change his predecessor’s defense industrial policy. In a recent interview, he mentioned the “promotion of Italian companies abroad” as one of the ministry’s main tasks.  As part of his agenda, Crosetto also inherits a long-standing tradition of military deployments abroad, mostly as part of multilateral, stabilization missions. Italy, for example, represents the leading European country among providers of U.N. peacekeepers and the second E.U. member after Spain in terms of personnel deployed in European Union-led operations. Furthermore, Rome currently has 2,440 troops deployed in 9 NATO missions, making it tied with Germany as the second-biggest contributor after the United States. This consolidated role as a key security provider will likely continue under the new right-wing cabinet led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who is a staunch Atlanticist and has promised continuity regarding the country’s defense policy. 

An Increasingly Troubled Backyard: Italy’s Pivot to the Mediterranean 

Notwithstanding the war in Ukraine, Italy’s core security interests are focused on the broader Mediterranean. In June, former Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini released the new defense strategy for the Mediterranean, which revolves around the concept of “projecting stability” and warns against a multi-threat environment evolving at warp speed. The latter includes not only the risks coming from terrorism, instability, and climate change in North Africa and the Sahel, but also the challenges emanating from Russia and China.

Moscow maintains a significant military footprint in the region, including Mig-29 fighter jets in eastern Libya and upgraded Kilo-class submarines able to launch Kalibr cruise missiles that can strike anywhere in the Mediterranean. The Russian Navy’s vessels frequently sail through the strait of Sicily and even entered the Adriatic Sea last August. For this reason, Italy needs to field robust deterrence capabilities along NATO’s southern flank and ensure persistent protection for critical underwater cable bundles and key energy infrastructures connecting its mainland and Europe with suppliers in North Africa and the Middle East. 

At the same time, Beijing poses a longer-term challenge. Chinese economic penetration in the region, especially through a growing portfolio of port acquisitions and logistic infrastructure projects, goes hand in hand with investments and diplomatic campaigns aimed at promoting China’s image and cementing its influence. This trend has potential long-term implications for Italy’s free access to ports and maritime trade routes, which is a priority for a country that contributes to almost 40 percent of the region’s short-sea shipping market and whose overall trade sector relies heavily on the blue economy.

The new cabinet in Rome seems to take these threats very seriously. In addition to clear words on China from the Minister of Enterprises Adolfo Urso, Crosetto acknowledged Moscow’s immediate threat but claimed Beijing was the biggest challenge for the West in the long run. Combined with terrorism, transnational organized crime, and climate-induced problems, these form a multifaceted set of challenges that only a holistic approach centered around the concept of human security can tackle. Militarily, this approach requires close cooperation both within and outside NATO in the form of increased cooperative security with partners in strategic areas such as North Africa and the Sahel, as well as frequent consultations and joint exercises with regional allies. Yet to be effective, these efforts should advance in parallel with political engagement and socio-economic cooperation aimed at addressing local vulnerabilities, in line with the underlying concept of “projecting stability.” 

Against this backdrop, Italy will likely contend with different threat perceptions and strategic cultures within NATO and the European Union that may complicate or slow coordination with some allies. This goes beyond the obvious differences with Baltic or Eastern European countries in terms of geo-strategic priorities. The relationship with neighboring France, for example, fluctuates, although it has been significantly improved since the 2021 Treaty of Quirinale. While Rome and Paris share similar interests and views on important dossiers such as counter-terrorism and migration control in the Sahel, as well as energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, the two neighbors have often diverged on Libya and, more recently, on the management of migrants arriving through the Central Mediterranean route. Competition has also appeared in some economic sectors, including the defense and aero-space market, despite the two countries’ recent pledges to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation in the framework of the E.U. strategic autonomy. On the one hand, this possible “strategic dissonance” should incentivize further political dialogue between Rome and regional allies to better align respective agendas, including through specific working groups. On the other hand, it should spur  more proactive military diplomacy with partner countries in key geographic theaters, albeit always in line with the principles and goals of the European Union and NATO. Italy’s current diplomatic and security engagement in Niger and the Sahel is a promising example in this regard.

The Challenges

From an operational standpoint, implementing this proactive and more assertive posture requires not only acquiring substantial expeditionary and multi-domain combat capabilities but also developing highly professional armed forces capable of conducting complex high-tempo operations with allies and partners. As noted by the Italian Chief of Staff Adm. Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, investing in the human component and prioritizing necessary training is essential for any fighting force, as without these, “fielded technology is ineffective.” Likewise, defense planning entails a difficult balancing act among readiness, investments, and force size — what Kathleen Hicks calls the “unavoidable iron triangle of painful trade-offs.” The right equilibrium has been a major issue for many European countries, including Italy, especially in a decade characterized by fluctuating defense budgets. 

To date, Italy’s modernization efforts have been hampered by an unbalanced distribution of funds among the various segments of the military. In line with a long-standing trend, this year’s personnel expenses will swallow around 60 percent of the defense function’s budget — the second-highest share in NATO after Portugal’s — whereas only 11 percent will go to the operations and maintenance budget. By comparison, major allies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have a much more balanced expenditure policy, with Paris and Berlin allocating around 40 percent for personnel and London appropriating as little as 31 percent. A more balanced budget means extra resources available for key activities such as training, education, weapons’ testing, and equipment maintenance, which will provide direct benefits in terms of skills, motivation, and readiness. The Ministry of Defense has acknowledged the need to address this issue, including through improved cost-efficiency, standardized weapons procurement programs, and cuts in personnel.

High personnel expenditure is partly linked to the limited generational change within the armed forces. In 2020, for instance, the average age in the Italian Army was 38 and 44 for the air force. By contrast, the average age is 31 in the U.K. military and 33 in both France’s armed forces and the Bundeswehr’s. As the likelihood of high-intensity challenges looms, a younger force should become a priority for Italian defense and policy planners. 

In Italy’s case, the problems posed by an aging population is exacerbated by an old professional model that, by favoring permanent contracts, has limited rejuvenation and professional turnover while increasing salaries. After years of political conversation, the Draghi government passed Law N. 119, which prolongs by 10 years the time limit to realize the so called “reform of the professional model.” This offers Meloni a golden opportunity to enact long-awaited reforms, with one year to submit the necessary implementational decrees. In a recent interview, Crosetto confirmed his intention to rejuvenate the military and revise the career system, establishing better mechanisms and incentives to reintegrate discharged personnel into civilian jobs. The minister also hinted at using the provisions of Law N. 119 to enlist up to 10,000 new recruits, albeit mostly in non-combat roles. 

In addition to fielding a younger force, the new government is also reassessing the target of a 150,000-strong military in light of both the changed security environment and the lack of personnel in some branches, especially the navy. Currently, there are 29,465 men serving in the Italian Navy. This demonstrates a widening disparity with countries such as France (35,000), Great Britain (34,000), and Turkey (45,000). In a parliamentary hearing last March, the navy’s Chief of Staff Adm. Enrico Credentino warned that Ankara will soon deploy the largest fleet in the Mediterranean, while coastal nations such as Egypt and Algeria are fast expanding their navies and equipping them with advanced, long-range land-strike capabilities. Considering the strategic importance of the Mediterranean, Rome’s ambitions to enhance its influence in this increasingly contested theater inevitably revolves around a powerful navy. Yet understaffing and a shortage of vessels — the navy ideally needs 65 units but it currently operates 57 — along with capability gaps in key areas such as anti-submarine warfare and land-attack missiles, cast a shadow on the future of Italy’s naval forces.

What’s Next?

Fortunately, in addressing the challenges it faces, Rome has already developed some reliable guidelines in its 2015 White Book for International Security and Defense. The document, launched under then-Minister of Defense Roberta Pinotti, was conceived as a strategic blueprint for restructuring and modernizing the military to meet a changing security environment. Seven years later, many of its recommendations are still relevant. They include the introduction of a simpler and more efficient recruitment process revolving around better career prospects and international experience as well as the rationalization of the personnel segment through a gradual shift from permanent contracts to an even mix of medium and short-term ones. The proposal also recommends harnessing pre-existing re-employment schemes and public-private partnerships to help reintegrate service members into the civilian job market. These steps, in turn, would facilitate a more balanced allotment of funds between personnel, military operability, and operations. 

Given the struggle to recruit young people and replenish an aging force — a problem emerging in other Western countries, including the United Kingdom and United States — investments in technologies such as uncrewed systems could help. The Italian Naval Armaments Directorate, for example, has recently endorsed a design study for the development of a drone carrier. However, technology is not a silver bullet and, if pursued at the expense of better personnel policy, could even prove detrimental for overall military effectiveness. Indeed, constant training and education are equally important as the world moves toward increasingly complex operational environments requiring high levels of interoperability, readiness, and information sharing among allies. 

This means that, in addition to other reforms, Italy should prioritize specific policies aimed at raising awareness among citizens about the role and importance of the military. In many Western European countries, the Russian attack on Ukraine seems to have rekindled a degree of public and political interest in defense after years of apathy. However Italy’s traumatic authoritarian experience has, as in some other countries, made it harder to debate defense in public and develop professional and academic expertise. The government should therefore seize on the present security crisis in Europe to overcome the public taboo around security issues and forge a stronger defense culture. 

Gen. Stefano Cont recently proposed introducing tailored education initiatives in schools and universities that would encourage new generations to study the history and role of the armed forces in Italian society. Other ideas include expanding the number of academic programs focused on defense and national security, along with specialized career or professional development opportunities jointly supported by the defense and industrial sectors. Furthermore, clearer and more consistent institutional communication from the military could also improve citizens’ understanding of what it does and why. Greater synergy between the military and industry, academia, and civil society can stimulate a franker debate on defense and improve civil-military relations. This in turn, will bolster Italy’s efforts toward building a force that can contribute to a more effective foreign and security policy. 



Federico Borsari is a member of the NATO-2030 Global Fellow professional program and a Leonardo Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on Italian security and defense policy, transatlantic relations, and the impact of uncrewed technology on warfare. He previously worked at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.

The views and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the positions of the author’s employer or organization.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Brooke Moeder