The skies over Italy soon will feature dozens more of a familiar aircraft with a not-so-familiar twist.

Thirty-four American F-16As will feature Italian flags on their fins, because the country is leasing the jets as the heart of its temporary air defense system.

Andrea Nativi is the editor of RID, an Italian publication focusing on defense issues that is roughly comparable to the English publication Jane’s Defence Weekly. He said the aircraft, some of which are already en route from the States to Italy, will essentially be the Italian air defense for several years.

“It’s better for us not to have any trouble,” he said with a laugh, while summing up the country’s temporarily smaller air force.

Of course, under most circumstances, the Italians can count on the support of their North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners at Aviano Air Base, which will have more fighters (about 50) than the entire Italian air force — at least for several years.

Nativi said the Italian government decided to lease the F-16s because its current fleet of F-104s is too old. And the two dozen British Tornadoes it was leasing would have required upgrades that didn’t make financial sense.

Italy still plans to purchase the Eurofighter — a European rival to the Joint Strike Fighter — but there have been delays and the country won’t have the aircraft as soon as it had hoped.

None of the Italian F-16s will be based at Aviano. They’ll mainly be flown out of Trapani air base in Sicily as well as Cevia air base south of Venice. It’s possible they’ll be deployed at other bases as need arises. Some visits to Aviano are likely, too.

Some Italian pilots who will be flying the aircraft have received tips on the aircraft from pilots at Aviano. And Col. Bill Becker, commander of the 31st Operations Group, said members of the 555th and 510 fighter squadrons are looking forward to seeing more of their Italian peers at the base.

“We’re pumped up to have more F-16s in theater,” he said.

And the base is offering to their Italian hosts specific information on the quirks of maintaining F-16s.

“We’re going to provide them with as much support as we can to help them out,” Becker said.

So far, that’s included dozens of backseat flights, where Italians ride along in aircraft piloted by Americans at Aviano. More are expected.

Nativi called the deal with the Air Force and U.S. defense contractors a good one for Italy. The older model F-16s have received some upgrades before getting passed along to the Italians.

“We will pay by the hour, more or less,” he said of the agreement, which runs through 2010. During that time period, Italy will be phasing out the F-104 fleet of about 60 aircraft.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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