This article is an amended version of the speech given at the Machiavelli 2022 Defense Conference.
I thank the Members of Parliament attending and especially the Machiavelli Center for inviting me to this important conference. A conference that is essential today, as the rapidly changing international scenario and the onset of the conflict in Ukraine cast doubt on many beliefs in which we had been lulled for the past three decades.
We had, mistakenly, deluded ourselves that we would no longer have to consider a "classic" conflict opposing us to armed forces with a level of technology comparable to our own. Of course, our soldiers would be engaged around the world, moreover in numbers that were in any case small, in the framework of a crisis management managed by some supranational body (UN, NATO, EU), to conduct peace keeping, peace enforcing or at the limit even counter-insurgency activities (as happened in Afghanistan); but we removed the problem by calling them all indiscriminately "peace operations." And, in any case, they would be operated in an environment in which we would be able to take advantage of an undeniable technological superiority that, while deploying few men on the ground, would guarantee us superiority in the areas of intelligence, cyber, air support, fire support, where needed. In short - to put it bluntly - a vaguely colonial conception of the conflicts that could have been ahead of us, where in any case our technological superiority would have made the difference.
Events in Ukraine require us to quickly change that reassuring approach.
Firstly, without wishing to enter into the discussion of whether it was right or wrong, needed or not, it is necessary to accept the idea that we Italians and NATO are also at war with Russia: we have declared in a strong way which side we are on. It is certainly true that, unlike 30 years ago, our eastern border no longer coincides with NATO's eastern border. It is also true that we for now only "fight" through economic sanctions and by sending arms to the Ukrainians. Moreover, we must also give due consideration to the possibility of direct NATO intervention if, despite the "indirect" support provided so far, the Kiev forces fail to push the Russians back beyond the pre-2014 borders (a goal stated by Zelensky and Biden, which, moreover, seems unrealistic) or even are on the verge of succumbing (a hypothesis that in light of the events cannot be totally ruled out).
One scenario which may not be sufficiently considered is that it is not NATO as such (on the unanimous and "conscious" decision of all its members) that decides to intervene on the side of the Ukrainians, but only a few allies (e.g., British or Polish, who appear to be the most convinced that direct war against Moscow should be reached and are already pawing at dragging NATO onto the battlefield). Subsequently, as happened in Afghanistan in 2003 (an operation that had been led by a U.S.-led Coalition of the willing since 2001) or Libya in 2011 (which was initially just a daring French-British initiative), the entire Atlantic Alliance might get involved, almost against its better judgement, to assist a member in trouble. This technique could also ultimately be a clever ploy to put the most skeptical countries in front of a fait accompli.
In the event of a conflict, keep in mind that Russia has a not insignificant military footprint in various countries bordering the Mediterranean, and this should worry us. That is to say, the potential "enemy" would not only be in the distant Ukraine, but would be well present in the Mediterranean and certainly in Benghazi.
These scenarios require us to look at our military instrument and consider whether as it stands it would rise to the challenge.
In this situation, Italy has also rightly decided to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2028, a commitment moreover made in 2014 by the Renzi government during the NATO summit in Cardiff. And debates are intensifying on the importance of individual domains (land, naval, air, space and cyber) and the most technologically advanced components of each sector.
Quite right. There are many, too many areas that have been neglected for too many years (for the ground instrument, think of both land and anti-aircraft artillery, the armored component, the engineer's bridging component, etc.). We welcome the renewed interest in these areas that require urgent modernization. Let us also abandon once and for all such questionable concepts as the "dual systemic use" theorized a couple of years ago for purposes perhaps more political than functional for the military instrument. The Armed Forces serve primarily to enable the state to use force (unfortunately, even lethal force) when other means of pressure (political, economic, diplomatic) have failed to achieve the desired results.
All this, however, cannot and must not overshadow the human factor! Technology, without the man who knows and is motivated to employ it, is useless. One can acquire the most sophisticated warfare technologies, but if one does not have adequate personnel, it is wasted money. The experience of even top-quality weaponry provided in quantity to the Afghan army that has been steamrolled by the Taliban, or the Iraqi army that has been steamrolled by ISIS, should give us pause.
The human factor is essential in all military branches, but in the ground one it must be remembered that the combatant often becomes a weapon system himself. The human factor cannot be separated from two variables: quality and quantity.
The quality requires that the potential combatant be fit, trained, and motivated to perform a duty that may involve the risk of life. Fit, also to be understood as physically able to cope with onerous tasks. Here one cannot help but point out the dramatic aging of our Armed Forces. The average age of troop personnel in permanent service today is about 40 years. While this factor already causes no small amount of concern, in the event of a conflict in a few years it could be unmanageable.
This situation is not unforeseen. It is the result of short-sighted choices, tending to satisfy the electoral gains of the political leadership of the day, rather than looking far-sightedly at the efficiency of the military instrument over time. In practice, it is the fruit of a system inspired by a conception that favored the employment factor over the functional factor. To remedy this, it may be necessary to reconsider not only the criteria but also the philosophies behind recruitment. A paradigm shift that would not be painless and would meet with not a few political resistances, but which today appears not to be procrastinable.
Moreover, personnel must be trained, and this requires availability of polygons (although environmentalists and anti-militarists do not like the idea) and funds for training (given the shortages of past years this is an area that has often been sacrificed). Moreover, this cannot but be affected by the very bad national habit of using the Army as a pool of cheap labor. It is obvious that in case of emergency or natural disaster the Army is there as it always has been. But it cannot become a surrogate to make up for shortages in other areas. Think of Operation "Strade Pulite" ("Clean Streets"), replacing garbage collection, or even Operation "Strade Sicure" ("Safe Streets"), which continues to absorb thousands of soldiers.
The use of the military in support of law enforcement began in September 1992, after the assassination of Judge Borsellino, with Operation "Sicilian Vespers". That was a necessary operation and one that made sense at the time. After 30 years, if there is to be with continuity the transfer of forces from one structure to another, it is difficult to speak of emergency and we tend more to think of disorganization. If there is a need to increase the police force, recruit more policemen, but preserve the military distinctiveness. This continual diversion of military personnel for an operation that has little or nothing to do with their specialized preparation (think of anti-aircraft or ground artillery units or armored or specialized engineer units deployed as police aides) also inevitably undermines the military's preparation for their specific tasks - and it seems to me that the message from Ukraine is that this is a malpractice we can no longer afford.
Regarding motivation, it is worth noting that within the Armed Forces it would be necessary to pay personnel according to the services actually provided and the responsibilities assumed. We realize that this would not be easy, as the Defense branch is bound by civil service regulations, where seniority prizes over merits, but in order to safeguard the military efficiency, the principle of exceptionality must be accepted. In addition, it would be advisable to at least avoid extemporaneous measures aimed at gaining consensus by depressing the worthy ones, as in the case of a questionable competition sought by a recent Minister, which led to the promotion to the rank of marshal of VSPs (Volunteers in Permanent Service) and Sergeants with lower requirements than those hitherto required for access to that rank.
Coming now to the quantitative aspect, it is now clear that organic volumes designed for the land component in a totally different geopolitical context cannot be adequate for the potential needs we face.
In particular, the 2012 model of Law 244, which proposed to trade quantity (i.e., personnel) for quality (i.e., technological innovation), must surely be set aside since in the immediate future it is likely that the land component of the military instrument will need both quantity and quality. That model provided for a ceiling of 89,000 for land forces, which does not seem adequate today. Moreover, while cuts in personnel have been somehow made, the savings achieved have not always returned to the availability of Defense to be reinvested in technological innovation.
In addition, in the near future, "quantity" will be served to varying degrees by age. Especially in the lower hierarchical ranks young personnel will be needed. The model to strive for, therefore, cannot be, with reference to the age of the personnel, a cylinder that would lead us in a short time to have perhaps troop personnel close to sixty years of age, hardly employable in operational assignments of their rank. It would be necessary, instead, to be inspired by a conical or truncated-conical model, where personnel enlisted as young men after a certain number of years leave the Armed Forces to be assigned to other employment.
Moreover, for 30 years, we as well as many Western countries (some more, some less) rightly looked to the "expeditionary operations" model. Model that required military instruments characterized by high projection capacity, supported by sophisticated war technology and based on voluntary recruitment, with smaller personnel size but with highly trained, highly professional and motivated personnel and - why not? - greater "expendability" of military personnel in case of human losses in operations outside the national territory (losses that would likely have been perceived differently by the public if they had involved conscript rather than professional soldiers).
If we are to return to thinking in terms of "Article 5" operations - of defense and deterrence, as the NATO Strategic Concept just approved in Madrid by Italy as well - perhaps it might be useful to start thinking about how to reconvert our military instrument. It is also clear that, in the event of a hypothetical "Article 5" Alliance conflict, in addition to the forces sent to the front lines, it would be necessary to strengthen all forms of what used to be called "internal territorial defense" (security of communication routes, anti-sabotage activities, protection of sensitive targets, coastal patrolling, etc.). Therefore, it would be appropriate to consider a reopening of enlistments, perhaps with different criteria. That is to say: you don't necessarily need those seeking the "permanent job," you also need people willing to be challenged for a limited number of years and then ready for something else.
Let it be clear that a generalized return to compulsory conscription may be neither militarily necessary nor practically feasible (and in any case certainly not in the short term) nor socially acceptable. Instead, provision would have to be made for the establishment of trained and readily callable reserves to cope not only with any public disasters or health emergencies (a need that became evident even in the early months of the covid-19 epidemic), but also capable of supplementing in the event of conflict the operational capabilities of the "standing" army, which would remain primarily "professional." Such an approach would entail the adoption of appropriate legislative provisions that would allow (as has always been the case in other countries, think of the U.S. National Guard or the British Army Reserve) the recruitment, basic training and periodic recall of personnel without penalizing them in their "civilian" employment relationship.
The process of arriving at such a solution would not be simple or quick, would impose not insignificant costs and a revisiting of the current military instrument. Certainly such a task should fall to the regular Armed Forces, and one cannot realistically think of assigning such a function to some albeit meritorious arms association seeking to expand its membership pool. Adjusting the quantity and quality of the "human component" of the military instrument also requires long-term planning, legislative activity and commitment of financial resources.
With regard to the now not-to-be-procrastinated modernization of the military instrument, it is hoped that we will look not only at technology but also at the men and women who that technology will have to use on the battlefield, often at the risk of their lives.
Lieutenant General (ret.), has participated in missions in Bosnia, Israel, Kosovo, Syria and Afghanistan, where he served as ISAF's Operational Chief of Staff. He also served as Director of Operations at the NATO International Military Staff in Brussels. He currently chairs the Center for Historical-Military and Geopolitical Studies in Bologna.