ROME — Azerbaijan has signed to purchase the Italian C-27J airlifter, becoming the 17th nation to buy the aircraft, manufacturer Leonardo announced on Thursday.

Without stating the number of planes bought or the value of the deal, Leonardo said the sale was a spin-off of closer energy ties between Italy and Azerbaijan, which supplies gas via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline to Italy.

After reducing its reliance on Russian gas, Rome is currently seeking to double the capacity of the TAP route.

“Initially linked to the energy sectors, the collaboration between Italy and Azerbaijan is now also extended to defense industry products thanks to the valuable contribution provided by the Italian Ministry of Defence working group,” Leonardo said.

Talks between the defense ministries of the two countries to reach the deal reflects Italy’s growing use of government-to-government negotiations to sell products produced by state controlled firms Leonardo and Fincantieri.

Existing customers flying the C-27J tactical transport include the air forces of Italy, Lithuania, Mexico, Peru, Slovakia, Morocco, Zambia, Romania, Kenya, Chad, Bulgaria, Greece, Slovenia and Australia.

In the United States, the aircraft is operated by the Coast Guard and U.S. Special Operations Command.

Leonardo said the aircraft has now notched up 170,000 flight hours.

The Italian Air Force is currently funding the development of two variants of the aircraft. The C-27J EW-Jedi is an electronic warfare variant designed to knock out electronic threats to ground forces including IEDs. Three Jedi aircraft are planned.

The second variant, known as the Praetorian, will offer a palletized gun, carry precision guided munitions and offer support to special forces.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on June 8 to correct the list of countries with C-27J planes in their inventories.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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