© Reuters. A German Air Force Airbus A-400 M aircraft ready to carry out medical evacuations is seen during a media event at Tegel airport in Berlin
By Andrea Shalal
BERLIN (Reuters) – After years of delays and technical challenges, Germany's air force's growing fleet of Airbus A400M military transport planes will now include a "flying intensive care station", top air force and defense ministry officials said on Tuesday.
Deputy Defence Minister Benedikt Zimmer welcomed the introduction of the medical evacuation capability as a key step forward on the long-troubled procurement program, and said additional capabilities would be added in coming months.
He said the aircraft's low readiness rates were also improving, with eight of 15 available aircraft ready for operational use on average last month. Last year, there were days on which zero aircraft were available for use.
"We are on a good path, but not nearly at the target that we have for readiness," Zimmer told reporters at an airfield at Berlin's Tegel airport after inspecting the new modular medical care stations aboard an A400M transport.
Germany, the largest buyer of the multinational A400M, has received 20 of the 53 A400M aircraft it plans to buy. It has taken years to add certain capabilities to the aircraft, and officials are still working on enhanced protective measures.
With the new medical equipment, the A400M can be configured to carry six medical patients to safety, including two in critical condition, Air Force officials said. That capacity will be expanded to reach 10 patients in time, surpassing the capability of the existing fleet of C160 Transall transports.
"This is a significant step, and marks significant progress," Zimmer said. The capability would allow the German military to help "strengthen the European pillar in the alliance," he said.
Zimmer said the new capability would be ready for use beginning Aug. 1, a third big achievement for the A400M after the advent this year of its ability to refuel other aircraft, and the first transports of troops and cargo to Afghanistan in recent days.
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