June 24, 2015:
Italy has decided to use its new T-346 jet trainer as the “aggressor” (enemy) for teaching their fighter pilots how to handle likely aerial opponents. Not only is using the T-346 a lot cheaper but is more accurate. The cash savings are important as the Eurofighter costs nearly $20,000 an hour to operate while the T-346 costs less than a third of that. Previously Italy used Eurofighters or other expensive (to operate) jet fighters as the “enemy.” Finally someone pointed out that the likely opponents would be operating aircraft more like the T-346 than the 23 ton aircraft Eurofighter Typhoon, which is closer in capability to the F-15 and is competing with the F-35 for many export sales. Italy, like most NATO nations, has adopted the “dissimilar training” practices pioneered by the United States in the 1960s and 70s with the Top Gun and Red Flag programs.
The M/T-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, and a cannon pod. The M-346 is an excellent dual use aircraft, as a trainer and fighter-bomber. The M-346 began production in 2009. Development began in the 1990s, as a joint venture with Russia. But the two projects split in 2000, with the Russians continuing to develop theirs as the Yak-130.
In fact the main reason for using the M-346 to spar with Eurofighters was cost. Continuing economic problems in Italy have led to the 2015 defense budget ($16 billion) being six percent lower than planned. Since the Italian economic mess (similar but not as bad as the one in Greece) is not likely to completely disappear any time soon the military is making plans to do what they can with less money. This means cuts are being made wherever possible. The use of the M-346 for dissimilar training turned out to be one of the “cuts” that was actually an improvement.
Italy has made its procurement budget go farther by being creative in obtaining more customers for Italian made weapons. This makes these weapons cheaper for the Italian armed forces. An example of this creativity took place in early 2012 when the Israeli Air Force decided to buy 30 Italian M-346 advanced jet trainers. Before the Israeli government signed off on the deal it negotiated a barter arrangement whereby Israel will pay for the M-346s with Israeli weapons and military equipment. Since Israel is paying $993 million for the M-346s, the Italian armed forces now has to buy an equal value of Israeli stuff to complete the transaction. Israel is one of the top ten arms exporters on the planet and Italy had no problem finding needed stuff to buy. Italian defense firms were not happy with this deal. While the barter arrangement may cost Italian firms some sales, the Italian military realizes that Israeli firms make a lot of high-tech military gear that is not produced in Italy. American and other European firms are likely to lose more sales from this deal. Thus the Italian military gets gear not produced locally and increases exports of Italian weapons.
Another factor was that Italy has had a hard time getting M-346 sales going. Before the Israeli sale only 27 had been sold (Italy bought 15 and Singapore 12). Several other nations are negotiating purchase deals and the Israeli purchase may encourage these buyers to move.