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Italian M-346 Master Trainer Aircraft

Issue 104

In the early '90s, the Soviet Union decided to develop a new aircraft to replace its Aero L-29 Delfin and L-39 Albatros trainer aircraft and appointed Yakovlev Design Bureau to develop the new aircraft. The Bureau began to design the trainer in 1991, but due to economic problems after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Yakoylev started to seek partners. In 1992, the Soviets agreed with the Italian company Alenia Aermacchi (now Leonardo) to develop the Yak/AEM-130 aircraft. Because of unresolved disputes between the two companies, the joint venture ended in 2000. Both companies continued the project separately. As a result, Yakovlev developed the Yak-130, and Alenia Aermacchi developed the M-346. The first M-346 prototype rolled out of the factory on June 7, 2003 and made its maiden flight on July 15, 2004. 

Although its external appearance is similar to the Yak/AEM-130, the Alenia has made the M-346, a highly advanced jet trainer aircraft. It is powered by a pair of Honeywell F124-GA-200 turbofan engines, and thanks to these engines, it can exceed the speed of sound. The aircraft's optimized aerodynamic configuration provides full maneuverability (+ 8, -3 G limit) and controllability at very high angles of attack (over 30 degrees). Thanks to its electronic flight control system (fly-by-wire), angle of attack and g-force limitations can also be adjusted by the pilot. Consequently, flight parameters can be selected according to the level of the student pilot. If the pilots/students lose their orientation during the flight, they can switch the plane to level flight with a single button using the Pilot Activated Attitude Recovery System (PARS) and recover the aircraft from the abnormal situation. The trainer aircraft is also equipped with the Mid-air Collision Avoidance System (MIDCAS). The M-346 has a fully digital glass cockpit, four-channel Fly-By-Wire flight control system, back-up instruments, multi-function displays (MFD), and is equipped with high-tech avionics with the latest human-machine interface. HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle and Stick) controls, head-up displays (HUD) for students, voice control for instructors and students, and helmet-mounted displays (HMD) are generally found in advanced multirole combat aircraft, not training aircraft. With the M-346, pilots can learn to use almost all kinds of western air-to-air missiles and radars during their training. It can use laser-guided or dumb munitions against fixed or moving targets and also emulate these shots virtually with its advanced targeting pod. 

The most important feature that distinguishes the M-346, a modern trainer aircraft, from its competitors is the Integrated Training System (ITS). This groundbreaking training set includes not only the aircraft itself but also the Integrated Logistic Support and (ILS) Ground-Based Training Systems (GBTS). This training set begins with computer-based lessons and procedures that allow the student pilot to learn the aircraft systems. Skill-Based Training (SBT) constitutes the second stage. In this stage, the student pilot receives simple simulator-based training on desktop computers. These allow the student to learn basic and emergency procedures. In the third stage, students are given the opportunity to learn about tactical situations such as basic ground attack and air combat training with the Operational Flight Simulator (OFS), which has a 220-degree display. In the last stage, student pilots continue their training with the Full-Mission Simulator (FMS). The 360-degree dome simulator that is compatible with night-vision goggles and HMD capability provides a realistic flight environment. During the tactical training in the simulator, FMS can be connected to other simulators or to another aircraft that is currently flying. This feature is called Live Virtual Constructive (LVC). The simulator allows four aircraft to train together at the same time. With the Aircraft's Embedded Tactical Training System (ETTS), it is possible to operate with other aircraft during flight or Computer-Generated Forces (CGF). Friendly or enemy elements virtually created with the CGF appear in the aircraft's onboard systems (MFD, HUD, and HMD). The ETTS can also emulate desired systems or munitions virtually. Therefore, a pilot can engage virtual targets with the AN/APG-68 radar and AIM-120 missile as if flying in an F-16 while actually flying with an M-346. The student pilots can receive some of their combat readiness training this way. While the only real M-346 flies in two versus two air combat training, the other three virtual aircraft can be used via simulators on the ground. All of this enables complex tactical scenarios to be implemented realistically, and virtually created elements can reduce training costs. The on-site instructors can monitor all training stages via the Real-Time Monitoring Station (RTMS). The system connects to both simulators and the flying aircraft via a data link, allowing the instructors to change the scenario in real-time. Aside from the trainer version, the light attack model of the aircraft was also produced. The M-346FA (Fighter Attack) developed from the trainer model of the M-346 is integrated with the multi-mode Grifo radar and Identify Friend-or-Foe (IFF) system. The FA version retains all the features of the M-346, providing the air force with maximum commonality, operational flexibility, and advanced training capabilities. With its seven hardpoints (pylons), it can carry a wide variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions (IR, Radar, laser/GPS guided), as well as electronic warfare, reconnaissance, and targeting pods. The M-346FA is equipped with the DASS (Defensive Aids Sub-System) self-protection system. The aircraft is also capable of operating in the network-centered combat environment with its data link system. Optionally, air refueling capability is also offered to the end-user. 

All these capabilities have made the M-346, the preferred aircraft for advanced flight training. Pilots trained with the M-346 will be able to operate with modern combat aircraft without any difficulty. It is used by the Air Forces of Italy, Poland, Israel, and Singapore. There were reports in the press that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan also ordered the M-346, and these two countries would soon become M-346 users. 

At the beginning of January, a comprehensive security agreement was signed between Israel and Greece for US$1.68 billion, which included the purchase of 10 M-346 (designated as Lavi by Israel) aircraft and the establishment of a flight school. Signed by both Defence Ministers of both countries, the deal includes establishing and operating a flight school for the Greek Air Force by Israel's Elbit Systems company. The agreement also incorporates the maintenance of Greek T-6 aircraft, as well as training and logistics support. The duration of the agreement was declared as 20 years. The military cooperation between the two countries, which have been conducting exercises for years, has advanced to the next level with this training contract. The agreement also increased the capability of the two Air Forces to conduct joint operations together.

Prior to this training agreement, the Greek Air Force was participating in the Advanced European Jet Pilot Training Program (AEJPT) in Italy for pilot training. The flight school, which serves at the Galatina Air Base near Lecce, also provides its training with the M-346. The International Flight Training School (IFTS), operated by Leonardo at the same base, also provides training with four M-346s. Recently, Galatina Air Base hosted students from Argentina, Austria, France, Greece, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Poland, and Singapore. Thanks to the training they received here, these countries have also become potential customers of the M-346. The procurements of Poland and Greece are a good example of this. 

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, lessons should be learned from the M-346, which demonstrates the capabilities that advanced Jet Trainer aircraft should have, and the training system implemented. The T-38M aircraft currently used by the Turkish Air Force, which will have a much more advanced trainer aircraft and accompanying training system with the Hürjet in the future, have some of the capabilities of the M-346. Turkey should initiate necessary studies as soon as possible to increase these capabilities to the same level. Previously, there were plans to establish a NATO International Flight School at the 2nd Main Jet Base in Çiğli, but unfortunately, this plan was not realized. The reopening of this school should be a top priority. In this way, the Turkish Air Force (TurAF) can preserve its strength and influence in the region, and potential customers will be created for HürJet in the future.