Italy has expanded its business of providing training for foreign pilots. The latest effort is the creation of an advanced (Phase 4) fighter pilot training school for Italian and international pilots. Nations already signed to send pilots include Japan, Qatar, and Germany. What makes this possible is geography and a local aircraft manufacturer, Leonardo, that has developed two new jet trainers and is a partner in the new fighter pilot training programs.
The two new jet trainers are the M-346 advanced trainer, which entered service in 2016 and in 2020 came the M-345 basic jet trainer. The M346 was a popular export. Italy even managed to sell 30 M-346s to Israel in 2012 and delivery was complete by 2016. The M-346 began production in 2011 and customers include Italy, Israel, Singapore, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Greece, Nigeria, Turkmenistan, and Poland. So far 150 are in service or on order.
Italy had a hard time getting M-346 sales going at first but now the aircraft has a record of good performance and satisfied customers. Italy needed Israel as a customer and Israel was interested but it took a creative barter deal to make the sale. Israel paid for the M-346s with Israeli weapons and military equipment. Israel paid $993 million for the M-346s so the Italian armed forces had to buy an equal value of Israeli stuff to complete the transaction. Since Israel is one of the top ten arms exporters on the planet, Italy had no problem finding useful items to buy.
The new advanced pilot school will soon move to an airbase in Sardinia that will be exclusively for basic and advanced pilot training of Italian and foreign pilots. That will enable the advanced pilot training program to increase student capacity from 40 to 80 pilots a year. Phase 4 training takes nearly a year and the next phase is familiarization with a specific fighter type. Italy and many of the nation’s sending pilots all use the new F-35 fighter, which helps. The familiarization training is handled by each country although the new Italian school will be able to expand to joint international advanced pilot training. Putting the airbase in Sardinia provides the maximum amount of clear weather and lots of open water to safely train over. Greece has established a similar pilot training school with Israel as a partner. This facility will also include training for aircraft maintainers and will use M-346 trainers.
Leonardo has also found the M-346 an excellent aircraft for OPFOR (opposing forces training) that has M346s representing hostile aircraft and flown by expert pilots who can accurately mimic the skills and tactics of potential enemy pilots. The M-346 is a 9.5 ton, twin-engine, two-seat aircraft. Top speed is 1,000 kilometers an hour. Max range with two drop tanks is 2,500 kilometers. The aircraft can also carry three tons of weapons including bombs, missiles, a cannon pod, or external fuel (drop) tanks. For that purpose, the aircraft has nine hard-points, seven of them capable of using drop tanks. The M-346 is an excellent dual-use (as a trainer and fighter-bomber) aircraft. The combat capability makes it suitable for training pilots in the use of smart bombs and guided missiles.
The M-345 is a 4.5 ton, single- engine, two-seat aircraft. Top speed is 740 kilometers an hour. Max range is 1,410 kilometers. The aircraft can also carry one ton of weapons including unguided bombs and rockets, air-to-air missiles, or a cannon pod. For that purpose, the aircraft has four hard-points. This gives the M-345 some dual-use (as a trainer and light-bomber) capability, which is often crucial when making a sale. The combat capability makes it suitable for training pilots in the basic use of ground support weapons and short range air-to-air guided missiles. The M345 is a much-updated version of the earlier S-211 and is attracting orders based in part on similarity to larger M346.
Another unique aspect of the M346 is that it began development in partnership with Russia but the two countries could not agree on many aspects of the new trainer and the two development programs emerged. For this reason, the M-346 is very similar to the new Russian Yak-130 trainer but considered a superior, and more expensive aircraft.
This began in 1993 when Italy agreed to work together with Russia to develop and produce the Yak-130. Seven years later disagreements over design and production led to Italy withdrawing from the Yak-130 effort and building its own version of the aircraft. Italy paid Russia $77 million for the use of work done so far and agreed not to sell its aircraft to states that were formerly parts of the Soviet Union as well as traditional Russian customers like India, Slovakia, and Algeria. That aspect of the deal was later modified because of the superiority of the M346. Italy could market the M-346 everywhere else and it did so very successfully because in most respects the M-346 was a superior aircraft. The Italian Air Force was not as large a customer as the Russians and only bought 18 M-346s at first. The Russian Air Force bought most of the 180 Yak-130s produced so far and more M-346s have been exported than Yak-130s, which only has export orders for about 80 so far, from seven nations looking for a bargain, at $15 million each for a 10-ton aircraft with many of the same specifications as the M346, but less reliable and costlier to operate. The M-346 costs about $25 million each.