|An Italian M-346 in flight during the 55th Anniversary of the Frecce Tricolori.|
|Role||Advanced trainer / light attack|
|First flight||15 July 2004|
|Introduction||September 2015, Italy|
|Primary users||Italian Air Force
Israeli Air Force
Republic of Singapore Air Force
|Developed from||Yakovlev Yak-130|
The Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master is a military twin-engine transonic trainer aircraft. Originally co-developed with Yakovlev as the Yak/AEM-130, the partnership was dissolved in 2000 and Alenia Aermacchi (merged into Leonardo-Finmeccanica, since 2016) proceeded to separately develop the M-346 Master, while Yakolev continued work on the Yakovlev Yak-130. The first flight of the M-346 was performed in 2004. The type is currently operated by the air forces of Italy, Israel, Singapore, and Poland.
In 1992, Aermacchi signed a cooperation agreement with Yakovlev to provide financial and technical support for the new trainer that the firm had been developing since 1991 for the Russian Air Force in competition with the Mikoyan MiG-AT; Aermacchi also gained the right to modify and market the aircraft for the Western market. The resulting aircraft first flew in 1996 and was brought to Italy the following year to replace the aging MB-339. By this point, the aircraft was being marketed as the Yak/AEM-130. In February 1996, Russia provided initial funding for the Yak/AEM-130 and pledged to purchase up to 200 aircraft for the Russian Air Force.
In October 1998, it was reported that the venture was increasingly becoming an Italian-led effort due to a lack of financial support on the part of Russia. By July 2000, Aermacchi held a 50% stake in the development programme, Yakovlev and Sokol had a 25% share each. In mid-2000, it was announced that differences in priorities between the two firms, and a lack of financial backing from the programme's Russian participants, had brought about an end to the partnership, and that each firm would pursue development of the aircraft independently; Yakovlev received US$77 million for technical documents of the aircraft. Yakovlev would be able to sell the Yak-130 to countries such those in the Commonwealth of Independent States, India, Slovakia and Algeria; while Aeromacchi would be able to sell the M-346 to NATO countries, among others.
The M-346 is a highly modified version of the aircraft that was being developed under the joint venture. It uses equipment exclusively from Western manufacturers, such as the digital flight control system being developed by a collaboration between Teleavio, Marconi Italiana and BAE Systems. In July 2000, Aermacchi selected the Honeywell F124 turbofan engine to power the type in place of the originally intended Povazske Strojarne DV-2S powerplant. On 7 June 2003, the first M-346 prototype rolled out, this prototype conducted its maiden flight on 15 July 2004. In 2004, a contract for the development of a full-mission simulator for the M-346 was awarded to CAE. Further production contracts for CAE's full-mission simulator have since been issued.
In January 2005, the Greek Ministry of Defence signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to become a partner in the programme and, in 2006, Aermacchi signed an industrial cooperation agreement with Hellenic Aerospace Industry. In March 2008 the Chilean ENAER signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Alenia Aermacchi at the FIDAE air show.
On 10 April 2008, a further prototype, produced in the final configuration (new landing gear and air brake, more composite parts), was rolled out. On 18 December 2008, Aermacchi announced that the M-346 had attained a maximum speed of Mach 1.15 (1,255 km/h, 678 knots, 780 mph), claiming the occasion to be the first in which an all-Italian built aircraft had broken the sound barrier in 50 years.
On 20 June 2011, a Military Type Certification was granted to Alenia Aermacchi for the M-346 Master by the General Directorate for Aeronautical Armaments of the Italian Ministry of Defence in Rome. Throughout the certification process, the M-346 development aircraft made 180 test flights, totalling 200 flights across the course of the previous five months, during which over 3,300 test points were completed.
In the trainer jet role, the M-346 is unarmed; however, in November 2015, it was reported that Alenia Aermacchi was close to finalising a combat-capable dual-role variant of the airplane. In late 2014, a series of armed tests involving the IRIS-T missiles took place. In 2015, an armed variant, designated as the M-346 LCA (Light Combat Aircraft), was offered to Poland; this reportedly included a capability of operating the Brimstone air-to-ground missile.
In February 2016, the newly created, consolidated Leonardo-Finmeccanica company promoted the Aermacchi M346 in two new roles; companion training and dissimilar air combat training. In order to better replicate the flight performance and behavior of various enemy aircraft, both the g-force and angle of attack can be independently selected in the flight control system; reportedly, existing customers have stated the type to be well suited to the aggressor role.
The M-346 is designed for the principal role of lead-in fighter trainer, in which capacity it is used to deliver pilot training for the latest generation of combat fighter aircraft. Powered by a pair of Honeywell F124 turbofan engines, it is capable of transonic flight without using an afterburner, which is designed to reduce acquisition and operating costs; Alenia Aermacchi has claimed that the M-346's flight performance to be "second only to afterburner-equipped aircraft". During the design process, the twin concepts of "design-to-cost" and "design-to-maintain" were adhered to, reducing acquisition and operational costs; the per flying hour costs of the M346 are reportedly one-tenth of those of the Eurofighter Typhoon. Outside of the training role, the M-346 was designed from the onset to accommodate additional operational capabilities, including combat missions such as close air support and air police duties.
The M-346 incorporates a full-authority quadruplex digital fly-by-wire flight control system which, in combination with the optimized aerodynamic configuration of the aircraft, provides for full manoeuvrability and controllability at very high angle of attack (in excess of 30° degrees). The flight control system, incorporating a HOTAS design philosophy, is equipped with adjustable angle of attack and g-force limitations; when combined with its wide performance envelope, this allows the M-346 to effectively mimic the flight performance of various fighter aircraft operated by trainee pilots or to progressively increase difficulty levels, thus raising the training's effectiveness. A pilot activated recovery system is present which, when pressed, conducts an automatic recovery by returning the aircraft to a steady and level flight path.
A digital avionics system, modelled on its counterparts on board the latest generation of military aircraft such as the Saab JAS-39 Gripen, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and the Eurofighter Typhoon, is incorporated, making it suitable for all stages of advanced flight training and thus reducing the use of combat aircraft for training purposes. A modular avionics architecture is employed, allowing for new equipment and systems to be incorporated and increasing the type's growth potential. The M-346's glass cockpit is representative of the latest generation cockpit and is compatible with night vision goggles; it has three color LCD multifunctional displays, a head-up display, and an optional helmet-mounted display. A voice command system is also present, which is integrated with functions such as the navigation system. The communication systems include VHF/UHF transceivers, IFF transponder, and traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS).
A key feature of the M-346 is the embedded tactical training system (ETTS). The ETTS is capable of emulating various equipment, such as radar, targeting pods, weapons, and electronic warfare systems; additionally, the ETTS can interface with various munitions and other equipment actually being carried on board. The system can act in a standalone mode, in which simulated data and scenario information is loaded prior to takeoff, or in a network, during which data is received and acted upon in real time from ground monitoring stations via the aircraft's datalink. For post-mission evaluation and analysis purposes, accumulated data, such as video from the optional helmet mounted display, can be extracted and reviewed. Alenia Aermacchi also offer an Integrated Training System (ITS), combining the M-346 with a ground-based training system as part of a wider syllabus towards qualifying pilots.
The M-346 is equipped with a total of nine hardpoints, capable of carrying external loads up to 3,000 kg while maintaining a high thrust-to-weight ratio; stores management data can be presented upon any of the multifunction displays in the cockpit. The radar cross-section of the M346 in a standard configuration is reportedly 20 square meters; this can be reduced to a single square meter by installing a low-observability kit which has been developed for the type. Other self-protection systems that can be fitted include a radar warning receiver, flares and chaff dispensers, and active electronic warfare systems according to Alenia Aermacchi the kit provides "excellent levels of survivability and effectiveness when operating in hostile theatres". Other equipment that is optionally installable upon the M-346 includes targeting pods, a tactical datalink, and multi-mode fire-control radar.
Combat missions can also be performed by the M-346, having been designed to be rapidly reconfigured in the field into a combat aircraft capable of performing ground attack, anti-shipping, and aerial combat missions, in a "home defense" capacity. Various munitions can be carried, including a 12.7mm gun pod, IRIS-T or AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, various air-to-surface missiles, anti-ship missiles, free-fall and laser-guided bombs and rockets, reconnaissance pods, and electronic warfare pods; weapon aiming is performed using the helmet mounted display and the multifunction displays. All main systems are duplicated, and the flight system reconfigurable, to increase survivability and functionality in the event of battle damage being sustained. The aircraft has a maximum range of 1,470 nautical miles when outfitted with a maximum of three external fuel tanks, this can be extended via in-flight refuelling via a removable refuelling probe.
The Italian Air Force intends to acquire a first batch of 15 low rate production M-346 aircraft. On 18 June 2009, Alenia Aermacchi announced they had received an order for the first six with an option for nine more. In September 2015, the Italian Air Force conducted their first training course using the M-346 trainer.
The M-346 was named the winner of a competition by the United Arab Emirates at the IDEX 2009 defense show in Abu Dhabi on 25 February 2009. The official said the order involved delivery of 48 aircraft to be used for pilot training and light attack duties. A final request for proposals in 2010 had set the requirement at 20 trainers, 20 aircraft for combat duties, and the remainder would go toward the creation of a formation flying team. However, by January 2010, negotiations to sign a contract had reportedly stalled over specifications.
In July 2010, the M-346 was selected by Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) to replace the ST Aerospace A-4SU Super Skyhawks in the Advanced Jet Training (AJT) role, based at BA 120 Cazaux Air Base in France. In a press release by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence on 28 September 2010, ST Aerospace was awarded the contract to acquire twelve M-346 and a ground-based training system on behalf of RSAF. As stipulated in the contract, ST Aerospace acts as the main contractor in the maintenance of the aircraft after delivery by Alenia Aermacchi while Boeing supplies the training system. The RSAF holds the distinction of being the first export customer for the type.
The Advance European Pilot Training (AEPTJ) program – also unofficially called Eurotraining – a consortium of 12 European nations to give advance & lead-in fighter training with a common core course and training provided by a common aircraft – has contacted Alenia Aermacchi through the European Defence agency in 2010, for further information on the M-346. In May 2013, Aleni Aermacchi announced that the AEPTJ held a low priority for the firm and that "...progress has been slow."
On 18 November 2011 the prototype, which had been on display at the Dubai Air Show crashed after departing Dubai on return to Italy.
On 16 February 2012, the M-346 was selected by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in an exchange deal, in which Israel will build a reconnaissance satellite for Italy in return for the planes. It will operate as the IAF's main training jet to replace the McDonnell Douglas A-4H/N Skyhawk, which has served the IAF for over 40 years. On 19 July 2012, a contract was signed between Alenia Aermacchi and the Israeli Ministry of Defence to supply 30 M-346 advanced jet trainers, with the first delivery expected in the middle of 2014. The Israeli Air Force announced on 2 July 2013 that in Israeli service the M-346 would be named the Lavi, reusing the name given to the cancelled IAI Lavi. The IAF's first M-346 was rolled out in a ceremony at Alenia Aermacchi’s factory in Venegono Superiore on March 20, 2014.
On 11 May 2013, an Alenia-operated M346 crashed near the village of Piana Crixia, in Val Bormida, between Cuneo and Savona's provinces, Italy, during a test flight. The pilot was able to eject successfully and survived the crash, but received serious injuries after jumping from the tree where his parachute had been entangled. The type was grounded for more than three months while the cause of the crash was investigated.
In the United States, Alenia Aermacchi is to submit the M-346 for the United States Air Force's T-X program to replace the aging Northrop T-38 Talon, rebranding the aircraft as the T-100 Integrated Training System. Alenia originally intended to be the prime contractor, anticipating moving the final assembly location from Italy to the United States if the bid succeeds. About 350 aircraft are expected to be ordered, further purchases could lead to over 1,000 aircraft being purchased overall. In January 2013, Alenia Aermacchi signed a letter of intent with General Dynamics C4 Systems, who intended to serve as the prime contractor for the T-X bid; however, General Dynamics announced their withdrawal in March 2015. On January 1, 2016, Alenia Aermacchi was absorbed into a new consolidated corporation titled: Leonardo-Finmeccanica. In February 2016, it was announced that Raytheon, who shall serve as the prime contractor, had teamed up with Leonardo-Finmeccanica to offer an advanced variant of the M-346 for the T-X program called the T-100.
In October 2016 the Argentine Air Force also evaluated the M-346 as a potential combat fighter to replace the Dassault Mirage III and Mirage 5 aircraft it had retired in 2015, as well as the Douglas A-4R aircraft that remain in service with only limited capability. Argentina is speculated to be interested in 10 to 12 aircraft.
Data from Alenia Aermacchi
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