The Naval Air Station (NAS) at Sigonella, located in Sicily just a few kilometres from Catania, is the best-equipped US intervention base in the Mediterranean and an important NATO asset for Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS), the new, super-technological surveillance system that at the end of 2020 equipped the Sicilian base with the 5th and last Global Hawk.
Since 22 August, it has been designated by the US government as one of the sites for the arrival of flights from Kabul. These flights brought political asylum seekers to the United States from Afghanistan. For Washington, there was a risk that it would not be able to cope with the wave of Afghans to whom it had promised political asylum. For this reason, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, after a telephone call with President Joe Biden, made the American bases in Italy available for the time needed to organise the transfer to the United States.
The military base asked for the help of volunteers given the volume of people it will be hosting. Thus, on 22 August, the first Afghan refugees landed as part of the ‘Allies Refulge’ operation strongly advocated by the US State Department for the safe evacuation of US citizens, special immigration visa applicants and other Afghans at risk, as quickly and safely as possible. In all, some 18,000 applications for Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) from the US were submitted. Processing them all, however, will take a long time.
That is why, in the meantime, the applicants will be housed at military bases on US soil or abroad. “I couldn’t be more proud of each and every one of you,” said NAS Sigonella Commander Captain Kevin Pickard during a meeting with US Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and State Department personnel before the first plane landed. “To see how this base is able to provide support throughout Italy is very impressive. The people we are helping are joining our American family. We are proud to welcome them with open arms”.
The refugees were subjected to anti-covidium testing, and medical care was arranged to assess and provide assistance to anyone with injuries or other medical problems. NAS Sigonella personnel designated two barracks buildings as temporary accommodation on the base for the evacuees, and set up a canteen that complies with Halal religious precepts and areas for religious and recreational activities.
In order to evacuate American citizens from Afghanistan, the United States has activated the CRAF (Civil Reserve Air Fleet) programme for the third time in history. Activated in 1952 after the airlift from Berlin, US commercial airlines made some of their aircraft available to the Pentagon within no less than 24 hours of activation by the White House. According to US Army data as of August 2021, the CRAF programme included a total of 24 airlines and a total fleet of 450 commercial aircraft: 268 covering intercontinental routes, 145 for international routes and 37 for domestic ones. The alert level was the first, lowest, covering ‘minor regional crises and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations’. Then there are phase 2 (used for major theatres of war) and phase 3 (for periods of national mobilisation).
For intercontinental routes, the following companies are registered: ABX Air, Air Transport International, American Airlines, Amerijet International, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, Federal Express Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Kalitta Air Cargo, National Airlines, Omni Air International, Polar Air Cargo, United Air Lines, UPS and Western Global. In practice, the US government has been using traditional airlines for this type of mission since the Gulf War (August 1990-May 1991) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (February 2002-June 2003).
The US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, has in fact activated the first level, requesting 18 aircraft from six airlines: four from United Airlines, three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air, and two from Hawaiian Airlines. Spokesman John Kirby specified that the planes did not land at Kabul airport: “Afghans left the country in military aircraft to land at the various US bases around the world, including Europe”.
Sigonella’s hangars house the RQ-4B Block-40 model of remotely piloted aircraft (APR), manufactured by Northrop Grumman and designed to collect real-time images, 24 hours a day, day and night, by means of ground and satellite transponders in all weather conditions, including sandstorms, whether in the air, at sea or on the ground. In addition to transport, refuelling and spy planes, it is also home to a squadron of heavy helicopters, which provides support for US military operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East and ensures an air bridge with aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and Red Sea.
Due to its strategic location, the base is one of the most frequently used staging points for the US Air Force on the route between the US and Southwest Asia-Indian Ocean. The base, which is also used for NATO operations, actually consists of two sites: NAS 1, which is in the territory of Motta S.Anastasia in Catania and houses offices and housing for the military, and NAS 2, in the territory of Lentini in Syracuse, which is the operational base with the airport, the latter managed “in condominium” with the 41st AntiSom Wing and the 11th Aircraft Maintenance Department of the Italian Air Force. Fabio Gigante for AeroMorning.