Andy Nativi/GENOA

Political and industrial pressures in Italy are throwing the proposed Italian air force purchase of Airbus Military Company A400Ms into confusion. They are also causing a rethink of its long-term airlifter plans.

Due to the manoeuvring, the air force is instead considering a further acquisition of Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules and a purchase of Lockheed Martin Alenia Tactical Transport System C-27Js. The A400M is one of the competitors in the pan-European Future Transport Aircraft (FTA) requirement. Others include the An-7X, a Westernised Antonov An-70; Boeing C-17 Globemaster and C-130J. Not winning the FTA competition in two or more of the seven participating countries could be disastrous for the A400M. A German consortium is supporting the An-7X programme.

The long-term Italian air force transport force plan was for two squadrons of A400Ms, a requirement of 24-30 aircraft - significantly less than the 44 declared by the Italian armament director.

But even that reduced figure is in doubt as domestic pressure mounts for an order to kick-start C-27J production. The air force is considering buying 12-18 C-27Js, a development of the G222, which is the mainstay of its current transport fleet. A scheme now being considered would see the industry ministry provide C-27J funds and pay for the initial support package. Older G222s would be traded in to reduce the acquisition cost.

Plans to upgrade current C-130Hs has also been abandoned after industry bids proved too expensive. Instead, a follow-on buy of six more C-130Js is also being discussed with the older Hercules being traded in. The air force already has orders for 18 C-130Js.

The airlift issue is further complicated by a need for more tankers, following the lessons arising from Operation Allied Force in Kosovo. Merging transport and tanker requirements and buying 10-12 Airbus A310or Boeing 767 tanker-transports would give extra airlift capability. Strategic lift is also needed but the air force has little funding to acquire C-17s and the A400M is too small for a pure strategic role. Like others, Italy is considering whether a pan-European strategic transport force could meet this need.

These requirements would eliminate an A400M need, with even supporters suggesting a six-aircraft buy could represent Italy's production off-take.

However, analysts warn that the implications of an airlifter order mean the air force's requirements are becoming of secondary importance.

Source: Flight International