Winning: Tale Of Two Trainers

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February 24, 2020: Russia enjoyed a marketing victory recently when it obtained a rare export order for its Yak-130 jet trainer. Vietnam agreed to buy twelve of them for $29.2 million each. About half of that amount is for setting up maintenance facilities as well as training maintainers and providing logistical and tech support. Although introduced in 2010, only 165 Yak-130s have been sold so far, most of them to the Russian Air Force.

The bad luck began a year after the aircraft entered service. That was 2011 and later that year Syria ordered 36 Yak-130s for $550 million. These were needed because Syrian Cold War era trainers were worn out. Syria was also broke but Iran agreed to secretly finance the purchase. That order soon was canceled because an anti-government uprising turned into a civil war and purchasing priorities changed. Then in 2012, the Russian Air Force decided not to buy 200 Yak-130s for use as combat aircraft as well as trainers. The air force needed these trainers as light attack aircraft (called Yak-131). But further investigation revealed that the pilots were too vulnerable to ground fire. This was particularly critical for an aircraft that would often go low to deliver attacks. This would expose the aircraft to ground fire and the air force determined that it would be better to refurbish the older Su-25 ground attack aircraft instead. These were upgraded to the Su-25SM standard and performed very well because their basic design was similar to that of the American A-10.

The ten ton Yak-130 can carry an external load of three tons (of bombs, missiles, cannon pod, or fuel tanks). That is now sometimes used to train new pilots on the use of these weapons. Max range on internal fuel is 2,000 kilometers.

The Yak-130 was in trouble before it entered service. Back in 2005 Russia decided to adopt the Yak-130 as its new advanced jet trainer and said it would initially order 55 of them. In 2008 Russia finally placed an order but it was only for twelve. The 2009 global recession intervened and a shortage of money delayed the big buy of 60 more aircraft, for over five years.

The new Yak-130s for the Russia Air Force began arriving in 2010 and were delivered in small numbers each year for several years. This was just in time because few of the existing Cold War era L-29 and L-39 trainers were able to get off the ground because of age and heavy use. This large Yak-130 orders that followed meant that Russia was serious about increasing pilot quality. It made sense for Syria to obtain the Yak-130s for the same reasons. Eventually Russian supplied some Yak-130s to Syria along with a lot of other emergency aid to defeat the formidable rebellion that developed after 2011.

Deliveries to the first export customer, Algeria, began in 2010 after 16 were ordered. Algeria is another Arab dictatorship that Russia has long supported. So was Libya, which the Russians did not want Syria to emulate but Syria blew up worse than Libya. But nations went from regular customers (of Russian aircraft) to a chaotic war zone where cash was in short supply.

Production of the Yak-130 began in 2007. The Yak-130 is capable of performing many of the tricky maneuvers of Russia's top fighters like the Su-27, MiG-29, and many modern Western fighters. This was one major advantage over Cold War era trainers. Yak-130 can also perform as a light bomber. The aircraft 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. Russia was initially selling the aircraft to foreign customers for about $15 million. The Italian version, the M-346 costs about a third more.

A major obstacle to obtaining more export orders was the Italian M-346, which is very similar to the Yak-130 but considered a superior, and more expensive aircraft. That was not a coincidence because in 1993 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 is 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. 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.

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 and Poland. So far 85 have been sold. 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 is 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 has no problem finding needed useful items to buy.

The Italian Air Force was not as large a customer as the Russians and only bought 18 M-346s. The Russian Air Force bought most of the Yak-130s produced so far and more M-346s have been exported than Yak-130s.

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.

 


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