Sicilian Defense: Sigonella Steps Up for Unified Protector

by Tracie Barnthouse
Sigonella played host to an array of nations and aircraft during Unified Protector, including Turkish F-16C Fighting Falcons (foreground), Swedish JAS 39 Gripens, and U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier IIs. (Photo by MC2 Gary Prill)

Naval Air Station Sigonella, located on the island of Sicily in the heart of the Mediterranean, has traditionally been a quiet base. From time to time, however, the sleepiness is disturbed. In 1985, a U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat intercepted a Boeing 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers and ordered the aircraft to land at Sigonella. The Italian authorities claimed the hijackers were under Italian jurisdiction and refused to allow a SEAL team to board the plane. The resulting standoff was resolved by President Ronald Reagan, who gave the order for the Americans to stand down.

From March to October 2011, Sigonella saw more action than it had seen since that dramatic incident more than 25 years ago. The latest activity was a result of the uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and resulting civil war, which led to NATO’s adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing member states to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya.

Because of Sigonella’s proximity to Tripoli (about 350 miles), the base became an ideal location for many of the aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone that formed the central component of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector. The base’s operational tempo accelerated from supporting logistical operations (with three to five aircraft conducting seven to 10 flights a month) to supporting air supremacy missions (with 45 to 55 aircraft from eight NATO and non-NATO countries flying daily sorties). Sigonella facilitated the movement of 28,000 passengers, more than 13,000 tons of cargo, and nearly 24 million gallons of fuel to 3,856 separate transient aircraft. In addition, the base supported 27,516 flight operations, a 243-percent increase over operations in 2010.

Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice, who served as commander of Unified Protector from Allied Air Component Command Headquarters in Izmir, Turkey, was impressed by the coordination he observed between the various countries. “It was awesome to see the outstanding cooperation between all nations operating at Sigonella,” he said after a visit there in September 2011. The partnership established between Capt. W. Scott Butler, NAS Sigonella’s commanding officer, and Col. Dario Missaglia, Italian Air Force 41st Stormo (Wing) commander, was “critical to the successful prosecution of the Operation Unified Protector. The ‘can do’ attitude of those two great commanders combined with their dedication to the mission make Sigonella the model for international cooperation.”

Maintainers at Sigonella had to keep an array of aircraft flight ready throughout the operation, from this P-3C Orion with VP-45 to Air Force Global Hawks to aircraft from six other nations. (Photo by MC1 Michelle Lucht)

Joint coordination was best demonstrated during an incident in the spring, when a Jordanian fighter jet supporting operations, but not based out of Sigonella, was forced to divert to the base to fix a maintenance issue. Although not directed or coordinated by higher authority, the Italian Air Force provided clearance and ramp space for the aircraft. The Turkish contingent welcomed the pilot and arranged for his accommodation, Danish and American personnel went to work to resolve the problem, and Sigonella’s fuels division refueled the jet and sent it on its way to continue its mission.

“Everyone chipped in,” recalled Butler. “This thing about that is—we have no orders directing this kind of cooperation. There’s no [memorandum of understanding]; people just picked up and did what they do, helping each other out—and that’s indicative of how things are going here.”

Jodice was very impressed with the cooperation exhibited by the units operating out of NAS Sigonella. “As I visited each unit, I came away with the same story—folks were excited about the [Unified Protector] mission and they were happy to be flying out of ‘Sig,’” he said. “Those same words came from everyone I talked to. Whether they were from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Sweden, Canada, France, Italy, or Denmark, all the Airmen I spoke with were thrilled to be there. The strong support by Italy, not only in Sigonella, but all the Italian host bases, is truly a success story for NATO and clearly demonstrates why the alliance has been so successful during [Unified Protector].”

To place Sigonella’s effort in context, one has to look at the numbers. The air station’s approximate population at the beginning of March 2011 was 3,500 U.S. service members, civilian employees, and family members, along with 1,000 local employees. As Unified Protector took off, the base swelled. A joint reception center was created that processed more than 5,300 personnel from eight nations and 72 different units, all of whom were provided with berthing, messing, workspace, and information technology support.

Berthing was one of the most critical requirements. When rooms at the Navy Gateway Inns and Suites met maximum capacity, lodging was provided through local hotels, but soon even the local economy was saturated. As a result, Sigonella developed innovative solutions, including using the base gym in the interim. A basic expeditionary airfield resource tent camp was also created to provide additional berthing for coalition personnel. The camp consisted of 55 tents that could house up to 550 personnel at one time and provided fully air-conditioned living quarters, on-site restrooms, shower and laundry facilities, and a recreational tent. The camp hosted more than 1,500 coalition personnel over the course of Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector.

Finding space for each country to operate out of was another challenge. Public Works Department Sigonella worked in conjunction with various base and coalition activities to provide contracting, transportation, and equipment support. Through their work, an 80,472-square-foot hangar that had been scheduled to be demolished was completely renovated to support Air Force and Marine Corps detachments, and to house the detachments of Turkey, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta observed the results of these transformations during a visit to Sigonella on 7 October. “I have to tell you that at the time that this mission was embarked on,” he said before a gathering of personnel at the base, “there were a lot of critics about whether it was the right mission at the right time with the right force, whether NATO could do the job. There were a lot of questions about the mission overall, and I think the critics have been proven wrong. NATO came together effectively, came together quickly, operations were put together effectively—and this was a complicated mission—there’s no question about it. Sigonella was extremely important to that mission that was conducted in Libya, and all of you know the tremendous role that was played by each of you in that mission.”

With the death of Moammar Gadhafi and the end of NATO operations in Libya, the base has gone back to its normal operational tempo. If called on in the future, however, Sigonella will be ready to support whatever mission it is given to the highest standard possible.

Tracie Barnthouse is the former editor of The Signature, NAS Sigonella’s base newspaper.

Sweden’s contribution to Operation Unified Protector included eight JAS 39 Gripen fighters (one seen here with nearby Mt. Etna in the distance) and about 130 personnel.(Photo by Swedish Air Force)

Swedish Air Force Lends a Hand to NATO

On 21 April 2011, a JAS 39 Gripen fighter with the Swedish Air Force, based at NAS Sigonella, participated in the enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya. The flight was the first of many by a Swedish contingent as part of Operation Unified Protector. It was also the first overseas deployment by Swedish Air Force units since their participation with U.N. peacekeeping forces in the Congo in the early 1960s, as well as the first time Sweden’s Air Force had cooperated in a NATO combat operation.

In all, eight Gripens and a TP 84 refueling aircraft (the Swedish variant of the C-130 Hercules) deployed to Sigonella to join contingents from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, France, Italy, Denmark, and the United States. Despite its long tradition as a non-aligned country, Sweden has regularly participated in NATO and European Union military exercises since the 1990s and is a member of NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council.

This fanciful contemporary Italian illustration depicts an Etrich Taube monoplane terrorizing Turkish and Libyan soldiers during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12. Air power would influence events there again 100 years later. (Photo by Art Archive at Art Resource, NY)

The Libyan War That Gave Birth to Air Power

The participation of units of the Italian and Turkish Air Forces in Operation Unified Protector brought back memories of a much earlier war in Libya that saw the two countries’ militaries as adversaries rather than allies. In 1911, the brief but notable Italo-Turkish War pitted an aggressive Italy, seeking a colony in the Libyan provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, against a fading Ottoman Empire holding on to the remnants of its once great domain.

Now largely forgotten, the war saw the first use of aircraft in combat. On 1 November 1911, Italian pilot 2nd Lt. Giulio Gavotti, piloting an Etrich Taube monoplane, dropped several bombs on a Turkish position about five miles south of Tripoli at Ain Zara. Gavotti carried with him four Cipelli grenades (named for the naval officer who invented them), each about the size of an orange, which he literally threw at Turkish soldiers on the ground. It is likely the “attack” caused few if any casualties.

Contemporary observers around the world, however, immediately recognized the importance of the incident. Within days the Chicago Tribune declared that although “apparently not very destructive,” the dropping of bombs from an airplane was “destined to become historical.” Glenn Curtiss, writing in the New York Times on 31 December 1911, listed Gavotti’s feat as one of the notable events in aviation that year (while, interestingly, omitting his own aircraft’s accomplishment of landing on a naval vessel for the first time the previous January).