NATO’s Dynamic Manta exercise kicked off in the Mediterranean in February. One of the photographs released, of an Italian submarine, shows something particularly interesting. It is not obvious to the untrained eye, but on its back are 9 grey blocks. These tell us something about the submarine’s covert mission capability.
They are attachments for one of the Italian Navy’s most differentiating capabilities: special forces mini-subs or swimmer delivery vehicle (SDV).
The Italian Navy currently operates a submarine flotilla comprised of four improved Sauro-class vessels and four modern Type 212A Todaro-class units. The Italian Peninsula hosts several naval bases for the Italian Navy, such as La Spezia, as well as bases for NATO forces.
In July 2019, Fincantieri announced that it would build four more U-212 submarines under license from Germany’s Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). The first of these new vessels is set to enter into service in 2025, which will then allow Italy to retire its older Sauro-class submarines.
Italy possesses four Todaro-class diesel-electric submarines. These vessels are hybrid diesel‐electric/fuel cell submarines with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP). They are 55.9 meters long with a 7-meter-wide beam and can travel up to 20 knots when submerged. They can remain submerged for about 30 days without surfacing. Their weapons systems are capable of firing BlackShark torpedoes.
The naval Special Forces unit, COMSUBIN, worked closely with Britain’s SBS, France’s Commando Hubert and the U.S. Navy SEALs among others. Italian consultants also had a significant impact on Israeli and South African capabilities, supplying mini-subs and training. But while many readers will be aware of the mini-subs used by the U.S. Navy SEALs, Italy’s designs are virtually unknown.
The attachment on the submarine are most likely for a cradle to carry a mini-sub. This is known as a Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) and can carry at least 6 divers. It is built by CABI Cattaneo of Milan, Italy, but very little information is available and there are no reliable photos. It is a fair guess that it incorporates technologies which set it apart from other SDVs.
These Special Forces capabilities give the Italian Navy very long reach in the Mediterranean. The highly trained COMSUBIN commandos can be landed covertly on foreign shores. For example there have been rumors of Italian Special Forces operating in war-torn North Africa. Whether submarines have been involved, the capabilities of Italian boats are worthy of a lot more attention than they get.
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