The Italian Air Force's MQ-9 Reaper UAVs are set to become weapons platforms in the near future, following reports that the US government has moved to supply it with arms for this purpose.
It's been reported that a weapons supply contract could be announced by around mid-June, giving the Italian Air Force a new type of capability that, among the MQ-9 Reaper's foreign operators, is so far only possessed by the RAF.
A single Italian Air Force squadron is presently equipped with the Reaper, with a full complement of six examples in service. These are currently engaged in surveillance flights in support of a 4,000-strong Italian troop deployment in Afghanistan.
According to one US government representative, the recent loss of an Italian troop in a scenario where overhead support might have kept him alive has partly fuelled Italy's desire to fit weapons to its Reapers.
Armed Italian UAVs
Now that the prospect of armed Italian UAVs has emerged, though, the big question for military analysts is whether other UAV-equipped nations will also want to upgrade their drones' roles from eyes in the sky to lethal combat machines.
Some, like Dianne Feinstein - who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee - think the US should retain for itself the technology needed to convert these UAVs. Others point out that the Italian Air Force already flies US-built F-16s, is considering purchasing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and, in any case, is a key NATO partner nation.
Reaper UAV Arms Deal
"Italy is one of our strongest partners and NATO allies, and it's important for us, for a variety of reasons, to share technologies and capabilities with them for purposes of burden sharing and to enable them to better protect themselves and, by extension, to protect the United States and our other allies", George Little, representing the Pentagon, advised journalists in a statement on the Reaper UAV arms deal made on 29 May 2012.
The Reaper UAV made its first flight in 2001 and entered service six years later. Last month, Reaper manufacturer General Atomics said it was exploring options that would increase the Reaper's flight endurance to a maximum of 42 hours. Among the new features that could be added to achieve this endurance boost are additional fuel tanks and wing extensions.
Image copyright USAF