By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“Silenziosi come la notte, veloci come la folgore.” (“As silent as the night, as fast as the lighting.”)
— Motto of the Italian Carabinieri Special Intervention Group (GIS.)
The Italian Republic (Italy) is strategically located within the NATO alliance in Southern Europe, bordered to the north by France, Switzerland, the majestic Alps, Austria, and Slovenia, to the west and south by the Mediterranean Sea, and to the east by the Adriatic Sea. Their Joint Special Forces Operations Command (COFS, in Italian), established on December 1, 2004, in Rome, reports directly to the Chief of the Defense Staff, currently Air Squadron General Enzo Vecciarelli, a former F-104SStarfighter pilot, for all matters pertaining to the employment of Special Forces and special operations forces.
The largest component of this organization is the Army Special Forces Command (COMFOSE), a brigade-level structure activated in Pisa, in northwestern Italy, on September 19, 2014, which includes three Tier-1 (Special Forces) units and one Tier-2 (Special Operations) unit. Italy’s premier, Tier-1, Special Forces group is the 9th Paratroopers Assault Regiment “Col. Moschin,” nicknamed Il Nono (“the Ninth”), in Livorno, about eight miles south of Pisa, along the Mediterranean coastline.
It is technically subordinate to COMFOSE for all training, supply, and administrative purposes, but is operationally directly under COFS command in Rome. This arrangement is exactly like the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the United States, which is administratively part of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), but is actually subordinate to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) for operational missions (This author was a JSOC paratrooper in the mid-1980s.)
The 9th Paratroopers Assault Regiment is similar in capabilities to the U.S. Army’s Delta Force, or the British Special Air Service (SAS), tasked with counterterrorism duties, special operations, and direct action, as required. Its principal force of approximately 300 men is the Raiders Battalion, consisting of the 110th, 120th, 130th, and 140th Raider Companies, all based at Camp Darby (formerly a U.S. military base in Italy), just north of Livorno, with specialty detachments containing medics, explosives experts/breachers, explosive-ordnance-disposal (EOD) specialists, intelligence collectors, snipers, and joint tactical air controllers.
They’re trained to operate effectively in all environments, including mountainous, wooded, or desert terrain, and amphibious operations, with recent, combat experience in Iraq (2003 to 2006, and 2015), Afghanistan (2007), and Libya (2011 and 2016.) The 9th Paratroopers Assault Regiment normally wears the new, commercially-available, “Multiland” or “Vegecam” camouflage-pattern uniform, very similar to American-made, Crye Precision MultiCam in its color scheme, but with digital pixelization, instead, and a new (since January 2019), gray-green, commando beret, tracing its heritage back to the Special Platoon of the elite, Paratrooper Saboteurs Company of the late 1950s.
The second Tier-1, Special Forces unit is the 4th Alpini (Alpine) Paratroopers Regiment, a Ranger-type formation specializing in mountain warfare. This regiment was formed on September 25, 2004, and has been based in Verona, at the foot of the Alps, in northern Italy, since 2011. They’re tasked with mountain warfare, special operations, air assault, airborne operations, close-quarters combat, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and direct action, with combat experience in Afghanistan (constantly deployed) and Iraq.
Their main element is the Alpini Paratroopers Battalion “Monte Cervino,” comprised of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Ranger Companies, with each company having three platoons of 36 men. There’s an additional, Maneuver Support Company, fielding Israeli-made, Spike-MR anti-tank missile teams. Alpini troops are nicknamed Le Penne Nere (“The Black Feathers”), because the enlisted men traditionally wear a black, raven’s feather on their caps, and even on their helmets, while officers wear a white, eagle’s feather.
The final, Tier-1, Italian Army unit is the 185th Paratroopers Reconnaissance Target-Acquisition Regiment (185° RAO) “Folgore”(“Thunderbolt,” or “Lightning”), also based at Livorno, and established on June 21, 2013. It transitioned to COMFOSE command in 2014, and became an official, Tier-1 unit in 2017, tasked with target acquisition, air assault, airborne operations, special reconnaissance, special operations, and direct action.
In this manner, it is similar to the U.S. Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron, a Tier-1 unit based at Pope Field, North Carolina, with joint tactical air controllers, who are highly skilled at target acquisition and directing airstrikes by friendly fighters and bombers. The 185th RAO is comprised of the 3rd Target-Acquirers Battalion, with the 7th, 8th, and 9th Target-Acquirers Companies, subdivided into 12-man teams. The 4th Alpini Regiment and 185th RAO also wear “Multiland/Vegecam” camouflaged uniforms and maroon, paratrooper berets.
The only COMFOSE Tier-2 (Special Operations) unit is the 3rd Special Operations Helicopter Regiment “Aldebaran” (3rd REOS, named for the brightest star in the Taurus constellation), formed on November 10, 2014, at Viterbo Airport, 115 miles southeast of Livorno, equipped with AB-412As, four CH-47F-ER Chinooks, and UH-90A (NH90-TTH) Caïman transport helicopters, with FLIR sensors for night combat, and M134D miniguns in the doorways, from the 261st, 262nd, and 263rd Transport Helicopter Squadrons. The Aldebaran Regiment has been deployed to Somalia in 1992, Iraq in 2003 to 2004, and has been constantly in Afghanistan since 2001.
The Italian Air Force also has three highly-sophisticated, multi-role, special operations aircraft, the MC-27J Praetorian, since 2016, developed from the basic, C-27J Spartan twin-engine transport, and assigned to the 98th Gruppo (Squadron, the “Wolves”) at Pisa Air Base, near the various, Special Forces units at Pisa, Camp Darby, and Livorno. They’re painted overall satin-black, and capable of being used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) duties, signals-intelligence collection, dropping paratroopers, combat search-and-rescue (CSAR), or close air support, using a palletized, roll-on/roll-off, side-firing, GAU-23/A Bushmaster 30x173mm cannon, with the additional ability to employ at least four precision-guided, AGM-176A Griffin mini-glide bombs (only 35 pounds total, including a 13-pound, blast-fragmentation warhead), as well.
Next, we find that the Italian Navy, Air Force, and CarabinieriCorps each have their own Special Forces and special operations units, some of which are directly subordinate to the COFS in Rome. The Italian Navy’s main component is the Operational Raiders Group (GOI) of the Comando Raggruppamento Subacquei e Incursori “Teseo Tesei,” or COMSUBIN, the Divers and Raiders Group, similar to U.S. Navy SEAL teams or the British Special Boat Service (SBS), based at Porto Venere, near the Gulf of La Spezia in northwestern Italy. They have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The GOI, with approximately 300 men, is skilled at attacking naval or merchant ships at sea, attacking naval ports or coastal facilities, search-and-rescue, infiltration and special reconnaissance in hostile territory, and counterterrorism operations, but they also have forward air controllers, and excel at mountain warfare in Afghanistan. GOI members wear an emerald-green, commando beret. When required, they are supported by the Special Operations Company of the 1st San Marco (Saint Mark) Marine Regiment, located at Brindisi, in the southeast, who wear the standard, Italian, “Vegetata” woodland camouflage pattern, and navy-blue berets.
The Italian Air Force has the 17th Raiders Wing at Furbara Air Base, about 18 miles north of Rome. This is Italy’s newest Special Forces unit, established on March 1, 2003, and is part of the COFS. It’s comprised of a Raiders Group, including four sections of raiders, subdivided into teams of eight to 12 soldiers each. They are tasked with combat search-and-rescue (CSAR), combat control, forward air control, and direct-action raids against aeronautical facilities, and are part of the 1st Special Operations Brigade, which is equipped with C-130J Super Hercules heavy transports, C-27J Spartan light transports, and HH-101A (AW101 Merlin) Caesar search-and-rescue helicopters.
There is also the 9th Wing “Francesco Baracca” (named for Italy’s top fighter ace of World War One, a SPAD VII fighter pilot with 34 confirmed kills to his credit, killed in action on June 19, 1918, during a ground-strafing mission at age 30), with HH-101ACaesars, a special operations helicopter unit, which may be used for covert infiltration and exfiltration of Italian troops behind enemy lines, and constantly operated from Herat, Afghanistan. The 17th Raiders Wing wears “Multiland/Vegecam” camouflaged uniforms, and tan berets.
Finally, there is the Special Intervention Group (GIS, in Italian), the “Leatherheads,” at Livorno, of the 2nd Carabinieri Mobile Brigade, as a Special Forces unit assigned to the COFS since 2003, although they were actually founded in 1978. The Carabinieri (literally, “Carbiners,” and meaning “Soldiers with Carbines”), is a national, military police force, technically part of the Italian Armed Forces, so GIS is like a 100-man, police SWAT team on steroids, but with military duties, as well, routinely operating in four-man teams. Its roles and tasks include counterterrorism, law enforcement, special operations, special reconnaissance, and direct action, and GIS has combat experience in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa.
When required, GIS may be supported by the 1st Carabinieri Paratroopers Regiment “Tuscania” (“Tuscany”), a large (550 men), Tier-2, special operations force in Livorno, tasked with air assault, airborne operations, close-quarters combat, close protection, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, diplomatic protection, crowd control, law enforcement, hostage rescue, military raiding, special operations, special reconnaissance, and direct action, also with combat experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Their qualification standards are so stringent that only one candidate in 30 is accepted. All GIS and Tuscania paratroopers wear either a dark-blue, police uniform or Multiland/Vegecam camo, depending upon the circumstances, and a maroon beret. The Carabinieri also has its own small, air force of AB-412SP/HPs and AW 109A/E/Mk. II utility helicopters.
Now let’s examine the various weapons and equipment used by the Italian Special Forces units:
Pistols: Some older, Beretta 92FS (M9) handguns in 9mm Luger are still in use, particularly with the Tuscania Regiment, but the Glock-17 and -19 are extremely popular with most units. The elite 9th Paratroopers and GOI prefer the new (since 2016), polymer-framed, Beretta APX service pistol in 9mm, while the 185th RAO and 17th Raiders use the Beretta PX4 Storm Type D. Other pistols in widespread use are the FN Five-seveN in 5.7x28mm, the H&K USP9 in 9mm, and compact, Beretta 8000 Cougar in 9mm.
Assault rifles: By far the most commonly-used weapon is the modular, polymer-framed, Beretta ARX160 A2 or A3 version in 5.56x45mm NATO. The ARX160 A2 is also known as the ARX160 SF (Special Forces), with a 12-inch barrel, specifically designed for the Italian Special Forces groups. The upgraded, A3 version (since 2013) offers a redesigned handguard, for better barrel cooling, and a slightly-shorter, 11-inch barrel.
ARX160 variants are currently in service in Albania, Algeria (Special Forces), Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt (Special Forces), El Salvador, Italy, Kazakhstan (Special Forces), Kenya, Kurdistan, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan (Special Forces), Paraguay, Poland, Romania, Qatar, Thailand (SWAT team), Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates (Special Forces), and United States (Fresno Police Department SWAT team.) This is replacing most older, 5.56mm carbines, such as the Beretta AR70/90, the very popular Colt M4A1 carbine, H&K G36 and G36C Compact, and Steyr AUG (with the GIS.)
Combat experience in Afghanistan, based upon the demonstrated deficiencies of the standard, 5.56mm round in battle, led to the development of the ARX200 carbine, an ARX160 derivative in 7.62mm NATO, in late 2015, with a 16-inch barrel standard for designated marksmen, and a 12-inch, CQB (Close-Quarters Battle) variant for Special Forces units. It’s already in limited service, as an optional weapon for those who prefer to have harder-hitting firepower.
Other widely-used, assault weapons include the HK416 in 5.56mm, HK417 in 7.62mm, FN Mk. 16 SCAR-L in 5.56mm, FN Mk. 17 SCAR-H in 7.62mm, and some Bushmaster M4 carbines in 5.56mm with the Tuscania Regiment. The 9th Paratroopers and GOI also use the SIG MCX carbine.
Submachine guns: The most widely-employed SMGs are the H&K MP5A3/A5and SD3 (suppressed) in 9mm, the H&K MP7A1 in 4.6x30mm, and the FN P90 personal-defense weapon (PDW) in 5.7x28mm, although some older Beretta PM12-S2s and M4 Spectres remain in limited service.
Sniper rifles: Their preferred sniper rifles include the H&K MSG90 in 7.62mm NATO, Sako TRG-42 or Accuracy International AWM in .338 Lapua Magnum, CheyTac Intervention or GAC Grande Armeria Camuna Thunder (Italian-manufactured) in .408 CheyTac, and Barrett M107 in .50 BMG. Other rifles employed in smaller numbers include the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System, SR-25/Mk. 11, or Mauser 86SR in 7.62mm, and Accuracy International AW50 and PGM Hécate II in .50 BMG.
Machine guns: The favored machine guns are the FN Minimi/M249/Mk. 46 in 5.56mm, the similar Mk. 48 in 7.62mm, and the Browning M2HB in .50 BMG.
Military vehicles: The Italian-made, Iveco VM90T multi-role vehicle, and especially the Iveco LMV Lince (“Lynx”), often armed (and similar to the American Hum-vee), are the most widely-used, tactical transports within the Italian Special Forces. They also drive the four-seat, ARIS (Italian-manufactured) Light Tactical ATV (LTATV) in flat black.
Combat knives: The Extrema Ratio “Col. Moschin” knife, with 6.3-inch blade, is issued since 2002 in either black or Desert Warfare finish to the 9th Paratroopers, and the COMSUBIN-GOI uses the highly-unusual, Extrema Ratio GOI S.E.R.E. 2 (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) survival knife. Extrema Ratio (“Extreme Recourse,” in English) of Prato, Tuscany, only about 42 miles northeast of the Special Forces units at Pisa, Camp Darby, and Livorno, also makes the Fulcrum E.I. military bayonet for the Beretta ARX160 carbine, and a wide variety of combat knives, daggers, and other edged weapons.
The sleek, Extrema Ratio Herring, previously called the Commando or Commando Desert Warfare model, is a copy of the British Fairbairn-Sykes Commando dagger of World War Two fame, with a 6.5-inch, double-edged blade, and the Herring is still used by the 185th RAO. The Carabinieri’s elite GIS, however, prefers the newer, Extrema Ratio Suppressor dagger, with a slightly-longer, 6.7-inch, double-edged blade.
Fox Cutlery of Maniago, Italy, near the Alps in the far northeast, also manufactures an excellent array of top-quality knives and daggers, in close collaboration with Böker Knives of Germany, offering an amazing selection, but the Italian Special Forces display a marked preference for the closer-to-home, Extrema Ratio brand.
In conclusion, the Italian Special Forces, like our own, represent all branches of their armed forces, and they are justifiably proud of their Beretta arms factory at Gardone Val Trompia in northern Italy, their locally-produced, Extrema Ratio fighting knives, and their Iveco and ARIS military vehicles. These remarkably skilled units are equipped with the very finest in weapons and equipment, for performing their hazardous, counterterrorist duties and other combat skills with quiet precision.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (including several months in Italy) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.