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Slater

Italy's F-104S

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Hello

I understand F-104 S was very popular. It is difficult to gauge her success when the closest this version ever came to actual combat was in 1999, when F-104 S fighters had been tasked with protection of NATO Italy bases during Kosovo campaign. From technological point of view F-104 S and especially her development F-104 S-ASA-M certainly was a success, at least in my opinion. What was basically a light fair weather short range interceptor had been turned into all-weather fighter, armed with a gun, SAHR and IR missiles, which is also capable of ground attack/nuclear strike. Not too bad, especially as all that came at a fraction of, say, F-4 Phantom II cost. Cheers

Jure

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It was basically built as a sparrow missile holder - something the G could not do.  A cheap solution as they already had tooling from G production.  Point interceptor - not really a fighter but the time it entered service.

 

PM

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As it only was retired in 2004? from frontline service or so I'd just assume yes. A total success.

 

And all what Jure says above!

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Sparrrows/Aspides under the wing of an F-104 looks rather unusual given the small size of the wing.

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Short answer: the F-104G was already an aircraft much loved by the pilots and managed to decently fulfil the missions it was tasked with. The S variant was more powerful and better armed while retaining all the positive characteristics of the G. The type remained in service for many years and even in its last days some of its features were superior to other more modern types so yes, it can be said that it sure was a success.

 

Long answer: the Starfighter in general was an aircraft that in Italy had a long and effective career. As an interceptor it was very well suited to the needs of the Country as its fantastic acceleration and climb rate allowed the interception of enemies with a minimal warning, something very important for a Country very close to the enemy borders. The 104 was of course also a difficult aircraft to fly, as testified by the considerable losses, but overall it was a type that all pilots respected and loved.

We now know that the G as an interceptor was limited by its radar and weapon system reliability, one of the reasons for which the Italian Air Force (AMI) decided to replace the type. The preferred aircraft was the Phantom and a number of attempts were made to convince the governments to buy this type, the first being during the evaluation that led to the F-104S (later attempts were made to replace the RF-84F with the RF-4, with the intention of later sneaking in the F-4E but this was when the F-104S was already entering service). In the end the F-104S was selected as a low cost solution. This had the requested better weapon system and also a more powerful engine. It was also built in Italy, something that made its purchase even more interesting.

From this point of view the AMI got what they wanted, the good characteristics of the F-104G were retained while the bad ones were removed. The 104S was a credible air defence system for a good number of years, although not everything went right.... in particular the AMI had wanted more advanced variants of the missiles for a number of years but in the end they got a good Sidewinder (the L) only several years later while for part of its service the S carried the older and not too reliable B.

The replacement of the Sparrow with the superior Aspide missile was also something discussed for more than a decade but it was only with the ASA subvariant that this was introduced (the Aspide had replaced the Sea Sparrow on Italian warships many years before).

By the time the ASA subvariant appeared (mid '80s) the 104 design was 30 year old and many in those days questioned the decision of upgrading these aircrafts. In terms of age of the airframes it was not a problem as the last F-104S had been delivered in 1979 but the overall concept of the 104 was felt to be not suited anymore to the threats expected in the '90s. In the air force intentions the ASA was supposed to keep the Starfighters going til the mid '90s, when the EFA was supposed to enter service...

And then the Berlin wall came down ! That meant a relaxation of the threat for most of Europe but not for Italy, as in the meantime the Mediterranean Sea had become very hot. The EFA program met many delays so the 104 got another update and we had the F-104S ASA-M that was the ultimate variant of Kelly Johnson's Mach 2 fighter.

At that point the 104S was not comparable anymore with the other types fielded by other NATO countries, even with its updated radar and missiles it was not a match for something like an F-16 with AMRAAMs. As a result a number of stop-gap solutions were implemented, the Tornado F.3 first and later the F-16 ADF, all leased.

The 104 had to soldier on for a while and during these years it became clear that the type should have been replaced earlier as at some point the only credible air defence asset the Country had were the Navy AV-8B+ with their APG-65 radar and AMRAAM missiles.

 

So to summarise, the F-104S was a success in terms of its performance and because it gave the air force what they needed for a good number of years. The 104 was not the most agile aircraft around but its speed and accelerations allowed the Italian pilots to develop tactics that could put into troubles many more advanced aircrafts and during various NATO exercises the S "bagged" many more modern and manouverable aircrafts. The S also intercepted a good number of Soviet aircrafts during the Cold War days. Last but not least, the F-104 was very light on maintenance and proved to be a very rugged design.

The closest Italian F-104S came to a real conflict was as said by Jure during the Kosovo campaign. In those days the AMI also fielded the Tornado F.3 and it was found that the Tornado was less suited than the Starfighter to the kind of missions required. The time needed to take off on alert in particular was very long on the F.3 while the Starfighter could be airborne in 5 minutes (a number of crews managed to take off in less...) and then blast toward to the enemy. The AMI in the end developed a tactic that saw the F-3s acting as "mini-awacs", using their much superior radar to patrol the area and then directing the 104s toward the potential threat.

In terms of how the overall program was managed however the 104S was not a complete success. The initial acquisition made sense, the ASA update may have made sense... the ASA-M however was required because the AMI had been caught without anything to replace the 104. It can be sure argued that the main culprit was the EFA program, however many believe that the F-104S should have been replaced earlier or that at least another type should have been procured as a bridge between the Starfighter and the EFA- In the mid '80s the USAF had offered a number of F-16As at a nominal price, in hindsight this offer should have been better considered.

 

P.S. all of the above refers to the interceptor subvariant, the strike subvariant was less debated: was better than the G and was later replaced by the Tornado IDS, so did its job with no question. When the strike configured aircrafts were made redundant by the Tornado, a number were used as interceptors with Sidewinders only.

Edited by Giorgio N

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Interesting that the F-104S brought the Starfighter story full circle. It was developed as a high altitude interceptor, was developed into a low level strike/reconnaissance aircraft (a gem of marketing on Lockheed's part :2c::whistle:) and ended its days once again as a pure air to air fighter.

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23 hours ago, T7 Models said:

Interesting that the F-104S brought the Starfighter story full circle. It was developed as a high altitude interceptor, was developed into a low level strike/reconnaissance aircraft (a gem of marketing on Lockheed's part :2c::whistle:) and ended its days once again as a pure air to air fighter.

 

Up to a point...

The original design of the Starfighter was not really for an interceptor but was for a day fighter capable of outperforming any expected enemy type. Kelly Johnson's solution was a relatively simple design capable of very high speed and climb rates, sacrificing manouverability.

That the F-104A  first entered service as an interceptor with ADC units was only due to the delays encountered by other types and the Command quickly gave up their Starfighters when types with more sophisticated avionics entered service.

The move toward a fighter-bomber also occurred quite early in the F-104 history as the C variant followed the A pretty quickly and was meant to carry AG weapons (and served in VIetnam in this role). That the type was developed into a strike aircraft was only a natural progression from the expertise gained with the C.

 

 

22 hours ago, Slater said:

Was the "S" ever fitted with free-fall bombs?

 

Yes, free fall bombs were actually the main weapons for a good number of F-104S.

The S was built in two subvariants:

CI for Caccia Intercettore (interceptor fighter), with no gun and the CW illuminator for the Sparrow missile

CB for Caccia Bombardiere (fighter bomber), that could carry the gun but had no Sparrow system.

Most F-104S "Stormi" (wings) of the Italian Air Force were on 2 "gruppi" (groups), where one was an interception unit and the other a fighter-bomber unit. This means that most bases had a unit with F-104S CI and one with F-104S CB

Part of the CB aircrafts served with units tasked with nuclear strike missions. These generally carried no gun (replaced by a fuel tank) when on QRA duties. The nuke was always carried on the centreline pylon while tanks were carried at the tips and under the wings.

The aircrafts serving with conventional ground attack units carried the gun and a number of conventional weapons, including the Mk.82 bombs, the BL755 cluster bombs, napalm tanks and of course the SUU.21 practice bomb dispenser. Bombs were carried under the wing pylons, although during several static displays bombs were attached to the ventral pylons. This configuration was however not used operationally.

 

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20 hours ago, Slater said:

Was Aspide considered equivalent to AIM-7M?

 

When originally introduced, the missile was considered superior to the AIM-7F. The AIM-7M was introduced later and is superior to the Aspide in some aspects, equivalent in others and inferior in a couple. The Aspide in particular is considered more manouverable than the various Sparrow variants.

The Aspide is still in production and the original variant has been improved over time. Many thousands missile have been built but most of these have been for use in the Albatross (sea based) and Spada or Skyguard (land based) SAM systems. The air launched variant was overall very little used, only being carried by the F-104S (and not even all of them) for a relatively short time

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Jari, thank for posting this picture !

It shows well the details of the BL22 ventral pylon, only used by the F-104S, variant that did not use the ventral dual launchers seen on the G.

The use of bombs from these pylons was not cleared for operations but was relatively common during static displays. The reason why this configuration was not used were two: the limited clearance from the ground of the load and the risk of ingestion of debris in the engine intakes.

The BL22 pylon was tested to carry Sidewinders early in the F-104S career but again the same problems in the end resulted in the configuration only being approved for wartime use.

I have to say that while these pylons were very rarely used, IMHO they look really cool on a model, more so with bombs attached !

For the record, the aircraft carrying that BL755 was from the 155 Gruppo of 51 Stormo. 155 Gruppo was a CBOS unit, meaning a "special" fighter bomber squadron, where special means that they were tasked with nuclear strike missions

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On 12/9/2017 at 8:57 PM, Slater said:

Did Italian F-104's ever employ the AIM-9M?

 

No, this variant was not used by the F-104

IIRC Italy never used the M, retaining the L until its integration (and later replacement) with the IRIS-T currently used on the Typhoons

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Woow!

@Giorgio N

 

 

Quite a lot of info hete!

Any additional info about the Selenia Alq-234 ecm pod supposedly carried by the F-104S?

Edited by exdraken

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On 18/9/2017 at 10:39 PM, exdraken said:

Woow!

@Giorgio N

 

 

Quite a lot of info hete!

Any additional info about the Selenia Alq-234 ecm pod supposedly carried by the F-104S?

 

I don't think I've ever seen an Italian F-104 with an ECM pod. I also don't have any evidence of the ALQ234 being used by the Italian Air Force, apart maybe on the PD.808s used for ECM purposes. This pod was quite succesful on the export market though and has been seen in use on Egyptian, Iraqi, Finnish aircrafts (Jordan may have been another user).

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