February 22, 2012:
Israel is buying 30 Italian M-346 advanced jet trainers. Italy has already bought 15 and Singapore 12. Several other nations are negotiating purchase deals. Until recently, Israel planned to replace its current jet trainers (elderly A-4 light bombers) with its older F-16s. Israel is under a lot of pressure to scrap the remaining A-4s but only after a new trainer was found. The A-4s were not expected to last beyond 2015.
Israel bought over 200 A-4s in the 1960s and 70s and lost 53 to ground fire and missiles during the 1973 war. Later, most were sold or retired. The remaining 22 are used for pilot training. But some of these have crashed, as the A-4 isn't a great trainer aircraft given their age and high maintenance cost. Israel eventually realized that older F-16s would not be much better as trainers.
When Israel bought the second-hand U.S. A-4s it did so because the aircraft cost a quarter what an F-4 fighter-bomber did and could carry as many weapons. The 11 ton A-4 could carry about four tons of bombs, along with two 20mm autocannon. Smart bombs make it unnecessary to have a lot of fighter-bombers, much less lower cost light bombers like the A-4. Thus the use of A-4s as pilot training aircraft, a job they were not really designed for but performed adequately at. Ultimately, Israel will have used A-4s for nearly half a century by the time the last of them are gone.
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, and a cannon pod. The M-346 is an excellent dual use aircraft, as a trainer and fighter-bomber. The M-346 began production four years ago. 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.
The Yak-130 is capable of performing many of the tricky maneuvers of Russia's top fighters (like the Su-27/30, MiG-29, and many modern Western fighters). It can also perform as a light bomber. The nine ton Yak-130 has a max speed of 1,000 kilometers an hour and a flight lifetime of 10,000 hours in the air. The pilot instructor and trainee sit one behind the other, and two engines make it a safer aircraft to fly. The Yak-130 can carry an external load of three tons (of bombs, missiles, or fuel tanks). Max range, on internal fuel, is 2,000 kilometers. Russia is selling the aircraft to foreign customers for about $15 million. The M-346 costs fifty percent more. Russia decided to standardize on the Yak-130 jet trainer, and production began five years ago.
South Korea thought its T-50 trainer would get the Israeli sale but the deciding factor was not price and capabilities (both the T-50 and M-346 are capable and cost-effective) but the fact that Italy is close, and an ally, while South Korea, while pro-Israeli, is far, far away. The M-346 draws Italy and Israel closer together, something Israel needs right now.