The Italian government on Saturday agreed to a NATO request to accept 72 U.S. fighter planes being evicted from Spain.
Defense Minister Valerio Zanone said the government deemed it important that the planes remain in Europe to protect the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's southern flank. He said moving them to Italy was the "only suitable solution" to keeping the wing in service and avoiding an act of "unilateral disarmament."The United States, under an accord reached in January with Spain, must remove the F-16s from the Torrejon air base near Madrid by 1991. The planes make up the U.S. Air Force's 401st Tactical Fighter Wing. The Pentagon has said it would have to disband the unit unless a final decision on moving them to another European base was made by August.
Zanone said there was no reason for the concern over the transfer expressed by the Warsaw Pact, since NATO was only establishing a new "peacetime base." The F-16s can carry nuclear weapons, but Zanone emphasized they will be armed only with conventional weapons.
Warsaw Pact countries are concerned that their territorial airspace could come within range of the aircraft when the planes are moved from Spain to Italy.
The Italian government has reportedly been considering several sites in southern Italy as possible bases for the F-16s, but Zanone said no decision has been reached yet.
Zanone said NATO will meet the entire cost of relocating the planes, estimated at about $500 million.
Italy's decision, made at a Cabinet meeting presided over by Christian Democrat Premier Ciriaco De Mita, had been expected following the formal request to Italy by NATO defense ministers in Brussels on May 26.
At that time, Lord Carrington, the alliance secretary-general, said the planes represent "a considerable portion of our strength in the southern region."
Italian government officials have said the transfer of the F-16s would be examined by Parliament later this month but that a vote would likely not be needed.
The Communists, Italy's second-largest party, immediately criticized the decision. Aldo Tortorella, a party leader, denounced what he called the government's haste in deciding and its lack of "national dignity."