In mid-2016 Israel received the last of 30 Italian M-346 jet trainers it ordered in 2012. The first ones arrived in mid-2014 and Israel began using them and planning modifications and upgrades. Israel was mainly carrying out modifications to make the M-346 more capable for training fighter pilots who will operate aircraft already modified for Israeli use. In addition the M-346s were being modified so they could also serve as a light bomber in wartime. So far the M-346 software has been modified to emulate the use of Israeli smart bombs and guided missiles launched from most Israeli warplanes. These software mods also simulate Israeli aircraft radars and other electronics.
Israel is also adapting the M-346 to carry dummy versions of these weapons for training. Israel has also modified flight simulator software to represent the M-346 with these weapons capabilities.
This was expected and the Italian manufacturer cooperated with the mods. This was important for Italy because Israel is not shy about praising the M-346 and providing versions of its M-346 modifications for export. At the moment Israel is the largest user of M-346s.
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 M-346 began production in 2011 although development started 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. The market for post-Cold War jet trainers is intense and Italy had to be creative to make the M-346 competitive.
So far 68 M-346s have been delivered or ordered. Customers include Italy, Israel, Singapore and Poland. Italy had a hard time getting M-346 sales going but now the aircraft has a growing 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. Since Israel is paid $993 million for the M-346s, 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 has no problem finding needed useful items 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. As the M-346s began to arrive in Israel the Italians realized there was another justification for the deal, the tinkering Israelis do with all imported aircraft.