by Alessandro De Pascale

Twelve January 2024. News agencies report that Pope Francis has rejected a €1.5 million donation to the Bambin Gesù Children’s Hospital in Rome, a private hospital owned by the Vatican that describes itself as “the largest paediatric polyclinic and research centre in Europe”. The Bishop of Rome, who in recent years has become increasingly active against war and for peace, has decided to publicly renounce these funds because they come from Leonardo spa, an Italian public company controlled by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the leading arms manufacturer in the European Union, second in Europe and 13th in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The company didn’t take long to respond to the Pope: “In all the current theatres of war, starting with Ukraine and the Middle East, there is no offensive system produced by us,” the management of Leonardo spa was quick to declare. Unfortunately, this is not the case for The Weapon Watch (the arms watchdog in European and Mediterranean ports): “We must refute the Italian government-controlled arms company: in Israel’s war against the Palestinian population, Leonardo weapons are not only present, but have been used in indiscriminate bombing raids on densely populated urban areas. To back up this claim, the Observatory has published on its website a series of photos and descriptions of the company’s products being used by the Israeli army, which has been bombing and occupying the Gaza Strip since October 2023.

Strike from an Israeli Navy Sa’ar 6 class corvette with Oto Melara guns (IDF video screenshot)

On specialised sites, including Italian ones, The Weapon Watch points out that “a short film attributed to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has been circulating, showing warships off the coast of Gaza firing at and striking the northern urban areas of the Strip”. And this is known by practically everyone. However, what has so far been known only to insiders is that “the bombardment of civilian areas was carried out with 76 mm Oto Melara 76/62 Multi-Feeding super-rapid naval guns built at the Leonardo (formerly Oto Melara) factory in La Spezia”. The Italian watchdog, which has always fought to “expose the connivance and hidden interests of the Italian companies most involved in the war economy”, points out that “these weapons systems have been adopted by numerous navies around the world, including Israel’s since 1969”.

These cannons “were handed over to the Israeli Navy in a special ceremony at the Haifa Naval Base on 13 September 2022 and mounted on two new Israeli Navy corvettes,” The Weapon Watch recalls. The corvettes are the INS Magen and the INS Oz, “the largest and most advanced naval units in the Israeli Navy, which are engaged in their first combat operations”. They were built in Germany by the ThyssenKrupp shipyards, and delivered between December 2020 and May 2021, “at an estimated cost of just under $600 million each, two-thirds of which was borne by the Israeli government and one-third by the German one”.

An Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master ‘Lavi’ in flight with the insignia of the Israeli Air Force

According to The Weapon Watch, “the considerable expenditure was justified at the time by the need to defend the methane gas fields controlled by Israel in the Mediterranean and claimed by neighbouring states”. But then, following the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, these two corvettes, equipped with the super fast naval guns of the Italian state-owned Leonardo group, whose range (depending on the type of ammunition) is between 20 and 35 kilometres, “were used for the first time in the internal war against Palestinians in Gaza, a good opportunity to test the systems and the crew”, denounces the Observatory on Weapons in European and Mediterranean Ports, which adds that, if the Israeli government deems it necessary, “they could also be used in war operations against Hezbollah positions in Lebanon”. And then there are the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master ‘Lavi’ fighters: “the Leonardo group delivered 30 of them to Israel between 2014 and 2016, without any guarantee that they would be converted into the armed Fighter Attack version, equipped with 20 millimetre machine guns, 30 millimetre cannon, bomb anchoring and release systems and subalar pods for air-to-air or air-to-ground missiles”.

In addition, The Weapon Watch wants to highlight “the strong link with the Israeli military-industrial system”. For the Italian State-owned group, the Jewish state is not only a customer, but also home to Leonardo factories and employees. Leonardo’s direct presence in Israel “is due to an operation completed in July 2022 with the acquisition of the Israeli company RADA Electronic Industries, specialising in short-range defence and anti-drone radars (see BDS-Italy Campaign statement), and the consequent birth of the new Israeli company DRS RADA Technologies, which, it should be noted, is controlled by the US company Leonardo DRS Inc”. DRS RADA Technologies, part of the Leonardo Group, has 248 employees and three sites in Israel (offices in Netanya, main factory in Beit She’an and research centre in the Gav-Yam Negev Tech Park in Beer Sheva), as well as offices in the US (in Germantown, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington D.C.).

The Italian State-owned company DRS RADA Technologies “participated in the development of ‘Iron Fist’, an active protection system to be mounted on the Israeli Defence Forces’ (IDF) new armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), the eight-wheeled ‘Eitan’, designed to replace the old M113”. Their actual deployment was planned for 2024, but “the surprise attack by Hamas on 7 October led to the immediate use of the new vehicles in the battle of Zikim, about 3 km north of the Gaza Strip, near an Israeli military base attacked by Palestinian militants”. Subsequently, “the Eitans were used in the invasion and military operations in Gaza,” Weapon Watch reports.

The same goes for the huge Caterpillar D9 armoured bulldozers used in Gaza to destroy Palestinian homes and structures, which are “equipped with DRS RADA’s active protection systems and tactical radars”. Then there is DRS Sustainment Systems Inc, another Leonardo Group company based in the United States, which “supports the mobility of the Israeli army’s heavy vehicles by supplying the special two-axle trucks that can carry a payload of 77 tonnes, more than the weight of a Merkava tank (65 tonnes) and the ‘Doobi’ armoured bulldozer (70 tonnes)”. Such deliveries to the Jewish State’s armed forces, made by the Italian state-owned Leonardo group, have been taking place “since at least 2007, when a prototype suitable for the army’s needs was developed together with an Israeli partner, Shladot Metal Works, a Haifa-based company that mainly produces light and heavy military vehicles for the IDF”, The Weapon Watch adds.

Leonardo spa, an imaginative name referring to the famous scientist, inventor, artist and universal talent of the Italian Renaissance, which was taken over in 2016 after the international corruption and false invoicing scandal (it was previously known as Finmecannica), states in its latest available balance sheet that it generates 83% of its turnover in the defence sector and has almost exclusively State clients (88%). But even though it is now almost exclusively dedicated to the war business and is very concerned about its image (apart from the share held by the Italian Government, 51.8% of its capital is in the hands of institutional investors, mainly British and American), it prefers to position itself in the more generic and more presentable aerospace, defence and security (ADS) market.

On the cover photo, logo of Italian aerospace and defence company Leonardo SpA on screen in front of web page ©T. Schneider/