Seven remaining partners in Airbus Military Company expected to announce formal programme launch on 16 November

Italy has pulled out of the Airbus Military Company (AMC)A400M transport aircraft development programme, leaving its European partners Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK to continue with the project. Italy was expected to take a 7.5% stake and commit to buying 16 aircraft at a cost of around L3,000 billion ($1.4billion).

The remaining partners are expected to announce the formal launch of the programme on 16 November.

AMC should receive a commitment for 193 aircraft from the seven remaining partners, with another three for Portugal. AMC's proposal to the governments was based on 180 aircraft. Italian sources say the issue remains as to whether Germany will buy the 73 aircraft to which it is committed. Berlin is struggling to fund its programme share and is likely to reduce its buy to 50-55 transports.

The other governments are continuing to press Italian prime minster Silvio Berlusconi and defence minister Antonio Martino to affirm Italy's earlier commitment made at the Farnborough air show in July 2000, but not formally repeated at the Paris show in June.

Despite the pressure, Rome has decided that the Italian armed forces have more urgent priorities than the A400M. Its decision does, however, leave room for a later off-the-shelf acquisition.

Italy has significant transport orders including 22 Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules, 10 of which will have been delivered by the end of this year. The $1.6 billion deal includes maintenance, spares, training, simulators, documentation, in-flight refuelling probes and delivery units for some aircraft as well as 100% industrial offset. Lockheed Martin also took back Italy's 11 elderly C-130Hs for onward re-sale. Italy is seeking to convert two more options to firm orders for aircraft to use as electronic intelligence aircraft.

The air force has also ordered four Boeing 767 Tanker-Transports with two options, and will sign within weeks a deal for 12 Alenia/Lockheed Martin C-27J Spartans, which have common engines and avionics with the C-130J.

According to military sources, Italy's only potential requirement is for a small number of true strategic airlifters, but this will be addressed at multinational, European or NATO level.

The Italian decision has been strongly criticised by the Airbus partners, some of which are decrying a "pro-US" attitude in Italian military procurement. Italy says it is fully committed to many European programmes including the Eurofighter, MBDA Meteormissile, Horizon anti-air warfare frigate, and the EH Industries EH101 and NH Industries NH90 helicopters.

The sources say the A400M lacks a clear and urgent operational requirement and it has a weak industrial case. Italian industry, led by Alenia Aerospazio, has been offered fuselage barrel and other airframe work.

The Italian defence ministry is meanwhile addressing the most urgent requirements and is to receive more than €1 billion ($906 million) additional funding. The shopping list could include mobile air defence radars and a long-awaited purchase of airborne early warning aircraft.

Source: Flight International