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Alfa rocket
Alfa rocket -

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Family: Missile. Country: Italy. Status: Development 1975.

Italy briefly flirted with the creation of an independent nuclear deterrent in the late 1960's. The Alfa project for an indigenous Italian submarine- and ship-launched ballistic missile was begun in 1971. Three Alfa test missiles with inert second stages were successfully launched in 1975-1976 from Salto di Quirra in Sardinia. The programme was abandoned at this stage, when Italy and its neighbours ratified the nuclear proliferation treaty.

In the early 1960's Italy found itself surrounded by states pursuing nuclear weapons. Yugoslavia and Rumania had begun independent development of atomic bombs and collaborated in the design and development of the Orao strike aircraft. Switzerland had decided to pursue nuclear weapons on 23 December 1958. By 4 May 1964 the Swiss military joint staff issued a recommendation to have 250 nuclear weapons, including 100 on rockets, by 1980. Italy, for its part, modified the 1930s-era Cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi with four launch tubes for Polaris missiles. It was Italy's intention to equip them with American nuclear weapons under the NATO Multilateral Nuclear Force (MLF) concept. Polaris missiles were supplied by the United States and were flight tested from the Garibaldi during the mid-1960's.

But by that time the United States had as a higher priority the prevention of nuclear proliferation. The Soviet Union made elimination of the NATO MLF a precondition to signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The treaty went into force in 1968, but notably Switzerland, the Balkan states, and Italy did not immediately ratify it. Switzerland signed the treaty in 1969, and Yugoslavia and Rumania ratified by March 1970, but intelligence indicated that Yugoslavia was still pursuing development of nuclear weapons at the Vinca Institute near Belgrade. Therefore it did not seem that Italy's security could be guaranteed.

Italy decided to take steps toward an independent nuclear deterrent. The project for an indigenous Italian ballistic missile was begun in 1971 by the Navy. Officially it was called a 'technology program intented to develop high power solid-propellant boosters for civil and military applications'. The resulting missile was to be carried on submarines and major surface combatants.

The first stage motor was fired eight times in static tests. Three Alfa test missiles with inert second stages were launched, in September and October 1975 and April 1976 from Salto di Quirra in Sardinia. (Another source gives February 1973, Winter 1974, and 4 April 1975). All flights were successful.

The programme was abandoned at this stage. Yugoslavia's nuclear program was winding down, and under US pressure Italy had signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty on 2 May 1975. Switzerland ratified the treaty and definitively ended its under-funded nuclear program in 1977.

Technical Description

The first stage was 3.845 m long and used 6050 kg of solid fuel with a five-pointed star grain (HTPB with 12% aluminium, 15% binder and 73% ammonium perchlorate). The stage had four gimballed nozzles made of carbon with a graphite throat. Burn time was 57 seconds, indicating a lift-off thrust of around 25 tonnes. The second stage had a mass of 950 kg. The Alfa would have been capable of sending a one tonne warhead to a range of 1600 km, sufficient to strike Moscow and other targets in European Russia from the Adriatic.

Alfa prime contractor was Aeritalia (now Alenia), with BPD Spazio providing the engine, Selenia the ground range tracking, and Sistel the on-board electronics. Other contractors included Laben and Motofides/Whitehead. The technological heritage of Alfa lived on in continuing Italian interest in light solid-propellant space launchers, including Advanced Scout and the current Vega project.

Many thanks to Paolo Ulivi, Giovanni di Chiara, and Allen Thomson for tracking down information on this 'unknown' rocket...


Launches: 3. Failures: 0. Success Rate: 100.00% pct. First Launch Date: 15 September 1975. Last Launch Date: 15 April 1976. Payload: 1,000 kg. to a: 1,600 km range trajectory. Liftoff Thrust: 25,000 kgf. Total Mass: 8,000 kg. Core Diameter: 1.4 m. Total Length: 6.5 m.

Alfa Chronology

1959 Jan 3 -
1964 May 4 -
- 1971 -
1975 May 2 -
- 1975 September - Launch Site: Salto di Quirra .
- 1975 October - Launch Site: Salto di Quirra .
- 1976 April - Launch Site: Salto di Quirra .
1977 Mar 9 -


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Last update 12 March 2001.
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© Mark Wade, 2001 .