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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Italian Special Weapons

The commitment to disarmament, weapons controls and non-proliferation is an essential component of Italian foreign policy. Italy has long been active on various fronts that include the United Nations, the European Union and the G8, as well as in the context of major international review conventions.

Among the most significant results achieved by our country in regard to this sector are the adoption of the European strategy against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (adopted during the Italian duty Presidency of the EU in 2003) and its participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) aimed at banning trade in weapons of mass destruction.

Italy's engagement in the context of disarmament and non-proliferation is divided into various sectors in relation to the various categories of existing weapons. The usual distinction made is between conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. The former of these, generally considered legitimate, are defined as "conventional" on the basis of two observable characteristics: a relatively contained capacity for causing injury and discriminating effects that allow for the greater protection of the civilian population. The latter, including include nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are distinguished for their enormous, and above all, indiscriminate potential for destruction.

Italy is supporting the launch of negotiations for a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and assumed a steering role in promoting them during the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The creation of such an instrument would have positive value both in the field of non-proliferation as well as disarmament since limiting the possibility of stockpiling new fissile material lays the foundations for the future reduction of nuclear weapons.

Italian Nuclear Weapons

Today, the development of independent Italian nuclear weapons is not a serious possibility. But in the 1950s a trilateral agreement was negotiated between France, Germany and Italy to jointly develop a nuclear force. Key drivers were the CEA under Pierre Guillaumat, and the then German Minister for Nuclear Affairs (and later Minister of Defense) Franz-Josef Strauss. In France, the President of the Council (Prime Minister) was not informed. This was only on the level of the Defense Ministry. After De Gaulle took power in 1958 he terminated the continuing Franco-German-Italian nuclear weapons negotiations and pursued the sovereign French way.

The Italian government's opposition to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was based on the view that signing it would permanently exclude Italy from Europe's club of nuclear "have's." Italy finally signed the treaty, despite widespread public opposition, due largely to the strong influence of the Italian Communist Party.

Jupiters in Italy

With the launch of sputnik, the Eisenhower administration and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) faced a credibility issue: how to deal with the fact that the dramatic space exploits of the Soviet Union succeeded in decoupling Western European countries from the United States. The Italian government's policy solution was multilateralism - inserting Italy into the center of NATO nuclear strategy by hosting alliance weapons on Italian soil. In March 1958, General Lauris Norstad, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), sent General Nino Pasti, Italy's representative to the Atlantic Council, on a mission to Rome. Pasti was to convey to Italy's defense minister documents concerning the possible deployment of new intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), known as Jupiters, on Italian soil. The deployment was supposed to proceed "as quietly as possible".

Italy had accepted the Jupiters to gain additional leverage within the NATO alliance, while Turkey was concerned about weakening US resolve in the face of Soviet aggression and technical superiority. In the end there would be only forty-five Jupiters in Italy and Turkey, and these were not deployed until 1960-61. The 60 Thor missiles in Great Britain were subject to British control, and the 45 Jupiters in Italy (30) and Turkey (15) were similarly subject to Italian and Turkish control. Two squadrons with a total of 30 missiles were operational at Gioia del Colle, Italy, by 1961; a single squadron of 15 Jupiters became operational at Cigli Air Base, Turkey, in 1962. Due in part to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the U.S. removed its Jupiter missiles from Italy and Turkey by July 1963.

Euromissiles in Italy

The extended debate in Italy over communist participation in the government during the 1970s had left an impression in both the United States and Europe that Italy was a weak and unreliable ally. But surprisingly, the Italian government ministers indicated a strong preference for Italian involvement in any LRTNF deployment plan. The reasons for this Italian reaction are complex and worthy of a separate study. Suffice it to say that it had to do with internal Italian politics, with attempts by the non-communist political parties to isolate the communists on security issues. It probably also had to do with the concern of Italian leaders to brine Italy back to NATO's "top table." Whatever the reasons, consultation in Rome showed that it might be possible after all to put together a deployment program involving more than one country on the continent of Europe. US determination to press on with its plan to achieve a consensus by the end of 1979 was reinforced.

GLCMs come in packages: the smallest unit, a flight, consists of four GLCN transporter erector-launchers (TELS), each with four missiles. For cost reasons, it made little sense to build a base for GLCM of fewer than three flights. When all these factors were put together, the United States settled on the deployment of 29 GLCH flights--3 in Belgium, 3 in the Netherlands, 7 in Germany, 7 in Italy, and 9 in the United Kingdom.

The Italian government firmly endorsed the program, raising no objections to its details. To the Italian leaders, LRTLVF was now purely a political matter. The issue was whether the democratic parties in Italy, especially the Socialists, would back the program. It seemed that they would, since the LRTNF issue provided a way for those parties to demonstrate their firm commitment to the Alliance and the common defense. They believed that the sharp contrast with the Communist stand would hurt the Communists politically.


In the 1960s, many countries considered it essential to their safety to have a nuclear deterrent, and began working on nuclear technology. Among these were Switzerland and various Balkan countries. Consequently, Italy began to feel the classic "vaso di coccio tra vasi di ferro", ["crock pot between vessels of iron"], and decided to do the same. Next to the program of nuclearization, the Alfa program aimed at the realization of a two-stage solid propellant missile fired from ships and submarines.

This program had no obvious connections with San Marco; the Alfa was operated by the Navy while the San Marco was by the Air Force, and while the first had directly operational purposes (creation of an SLBM). Officially it was described as a technological program aimed at to build a high power solid propellant motors for civil and military applications. The San Marco had purely scientific purposes and of international prestige, although the Air Force made it clear that a vehicle able to inject a satellite into orbit was also capable of serving as an intercontinental ballistic missile. It was obvious that a national ICBM could be the forerunner for a national satellite launcher.

In 1971, the Italian project Alpha proposed the creation of a large ballistic missile with performance comparable to that of Polaris, which ten years before the United States had refused to sell to Italy. The range of this missile was about 1,600 Km. This meant that by placing a ship equipped with such missiles in the Adriatic, it was enough to press a button to hit the capital of any country in Eastern Europe.

The development of this missile went all right and it came to final testing in the mid-1970s. Between 1973 and 1975, the first stage of Alfa was launched three times from the joint Salto di Quirra test range with a simulacrum of the second stage: all launches were successful, all of course with inert head. At this point, once in possession of nuclear weapons, apart from the USSR, no country could threaten Italy.

The Alfa Project went ahead, although neighboring countries one after another adhered to the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty, since there were strong indications that Yugoslavia continued to work on its nuclear weapons program. Obviously at this point there was very strong international pressure for Italy to abandon the development of such weapons, and for the USSR it was relatively easy to convince Tito that the continuation of a Yugoslav nuclear program would have been counterproductive for Yugoslavia, because it would have given birth in Italy of a far more formidable armament.

Finally, however, Italy signed the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (May 2, 1975), and the realization of nuclear warheads and missiles, were closed. The development of the Alfa missile was abandoned, not before, but having made the test launches , almost wanting to make it clear to Yugoslavia that the weapon was ready and, if necessary, would be built if Yugoslavia resumed a nuclear research program.

The Alfa left an important legacy: the Italian industry (particularly the BPD Colleferro, today Avio) had learned to realize big solid propellant motors, paving the way for important Italian contribution to Ariane: all Italians were the solid boosters of Ariane 4 and italo-French Ariane 5 ones.

Chemical Weapons

The use of chemical weapons in the name of imperialist expansion awakened the international community during the 1930s, when Italy and Japan deployed their offensive chemical stockpiles against unprotected neighbors. The first major use of chemical weapons after World War I came in 1935 during the Italian-Ethiopian War. Italy's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, launched an invasion of Ethiopia from its neighbors Eritrea, an Italian colony, and Italian Somaliland, that lasted approximately 7 months starting October 3. Viewed as a prelude to World War II, the Italian-Ethiopian War proved the effectiveness of chemical weapons and the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations.

Ethiopia protested the invasion to the League of Nations, which in turn imposed limited economic sanctions on Italy. These sanctions, although not crippling, put pressure on Italy to either win the war or withdraw. The initial Italian offensive from Eritrea was not pursued with enough vigor in Mussolini's opinion, and the Italian commander was replaced. The new commander, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, was ordered to finish the war quickly. He resorted to chemical weapons to defeat the Ethiopian troops led by Emperor Haile Selassie. Despite the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which Italy had ratified in 1928 (followed by Ethiopia in 1935), the Italians dropped mustard bombs and occasionally sprayed mustard from airplane tanks.

They also used mustard agent in powder form as a "dusty agent" on the African desert sands to burn the unprotected feet of the Ethiopians. There were rumors of phosgene and chloropicrin attacks, but these were never verified. The Italians attempted to justify their use of chemical weapons by citing the exception to the Geneva Protocol restrictions that referred to acceptable use for reprisal against illegal acts of war, stating that the Ethiopians had tortured or killed their prisoners and wounded soldiers.

The chemical weapons devastated the unprepared and unprotected Ethiopians, who had few antiaircraft guns and no air force. Selassie described the situation to the League of Nations: "Special sprayers were installed on board aircraft so they could vaporize over vast areas of territory a fine, death-dealing rain. Groups of 9, 15, or 18 aircraft followed one another so that the fog issuing from them formed a continuous sheet. It was thus that, as from the end of January 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes, and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain. In order more surely to poison the waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again. These fearful tactics succeeded. Men and animals succumbed. The deadly rain that fell from the aircraft made all those whom it touched fly shrieking with pain. All those who drank poisoned water or ate infected food also succumbed in dreadful suffering. In tens of thousands the victims of Italian mustard gas fell."

By May 1936 Italy's army had completely routed the Ethiopian army. Italy controlled most of Ethiopia until 1941, when British and other allied troops reconquered the country.

The US Army closely followed the war and sent Major Norman E Fiske to observe with the Italian army, and Captain John Meade to observe with the Ethiopian army. Their different conclusions as to the role of chemical warfare in the conflict reflected the sides they observed.

Major Fiske thought the Italians were clearly superior and that victory for them was assured. The use of chemical agents in the war was nothing more than an experiment. "From my own observations and from talking with [Italian] junior officers and soldiers," Fiske reported, "I have concluded that gas was not used extensively in the African campaign and that its use had little if any effect on the outcome." His opinion was supported by others who felt that the Ethiopians had made a serious mistake in abandoning guerrilla operations for a conventional war.

On the other hand, Captain Meade thought that chemical weapons were a significant factor in winning the war. They had been used to destroy the morale of the Ethiopian troops, who had little or no protection, and to break up any attempts at concentrating forces. "It is my opinion that of all the superior weapons possessed by the Italians, mustard gas was the most effective," Meade said. "It caused few deaths that I observed, but it temporarily incapacitated very large numbers and so frightened the rest that the Ethiopian resistance broke completely."

Italy is party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC aims to eliminate an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. It specifically prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons. State Parties to the CWC also agree not to use Riot Control Agents (RCAs) as a method of warfare. The CWC entered into force on 29 April 1997.

The Office of the National Authority for the Implementation of the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (CWC) has been established pursuant to Article 9 of Law No 496 of 18 November 1995, subsequently replaced by Art. 6 of Law No 93 of 4 April 1997.

Biological Weapons

The Italians had performed BW activities since 1934 - although on a small scale and mainly for defence purposes. Italian BW experiments with Bacillus prodigiosus spray were described after the war by Lt. Col. Dr. Giuseppe Morselli from the Laboratory of Microbiology of the Italian Ministry of War. According to Morselli "no plans were ever made by us for the development of BW". According to a confidental report submitted to the Hungarian Government by BW expert Dr. Dezso Bartos in 1955 the Italian facility was directed by Lt. Col. Professor Hugo Reitano. The facility was located on the area of a military hospital and was quite large with working space not only in two floors but also the basement.

At the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee meeting in 1969, the United Kingdom, supported by the United States, called for the elimination of biological weapons (BW). The United States agreed to ban the development, production, and stockpiling of BW and announced its intent to ratify the Convention. The Convention opened for signature on 10 April 1972, after the United States and the Soviet Union reached agreement on the text of the Convention.

The convention is subject to periodic review conferences in the context of which it is possible to propose amendments and contribute updates regarding scientific developments in that sector. At the latest of these conferences, held in November 2006, Italy played a steering role through the presentation of an Action Plan for universal application of the convention.

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Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:45:27 ZULU