The Master in control for UAE
DEFENCE editor Jon Lake takes a look at the UAE Air Force choice for a jet trainer as it becomes the launch international customer for the Italian aircraft
On 25 February, at the IDEX 2009 (International Defence Exhibition and Conference) the United Arab Emirates government announced that it had selected the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master to meet its longstanding requirement for a new advanced trainer aircraft, and for an aircraft to undertake ‘Phase 4’ or Lead In Fighter Training (LIFT) for pilots destined for the UAE Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 60 and the Dassault Mirage 2000-9 fighters.
In doing so, the UAE beat the Italian Air Force to the draw, since the Aeronautica Militare Italiana’s own long-awaited order for 14 or 15 M-346s has yet to be ‘inked’.
The UAE Government said that it had begun negotiations for the acquisition of 48 advanced lead-in fighter trainer aircraft, and revealed that the agreement had also included the signing of a broad-based industrial co-operation agreement between Alenia Aermacchi and the Mubadala Development Company. This will include the establishment of a UAE-based joint venture that will see the manufacturing of composite aerostructures in Abu Dhabi, and which could provide a local final assembly line for the M-346 aircraft.
The M-346 will be operated by the UAEAF in the advanced flying training role, replacing a fleet of about 38 BAE Systems Hawk Mk 63 and Hawk Mk 102 trainers. The UAE Air Force will also procure an armed variant for use in the close air support role, even though development of the M-346’s light-attack version is still in its earliest stages.
The split between training and frontline combat aircraft was not officially confirmed at IDEX, though the Request for Proposals that was issued last year was for 20 trainers, 20 combat variants, and eight aircraft for use by a new air force formation aerobatic display team. The contract will also include the provision of a full ground-based training system, with flight simulators and a tailored training syllabus.
Though the value of the programme was not officially confirmed, informed sources suggest that the trainer deal could be worth around €1 billion ($1.27 billion), and more with training and support contracts.
First deliveries to the UAE Air Force are expected from 2012, and at least the first four aircraft will be built in Italy, due to the tight delivery schedule.
UAE Trainer pre-history
The UAE was a full partner in the EADS Mako trainer programme from November 1999, but plans to sign an MoU to mark the start of the definition and development phase of the Mako in 2002 fell by the wayside, and the UAE refused to commit to becoming the launch customer for the Mako. Subsequently, interest turned to the BAE Systems Hawk Mk.128 (dropped from the competition on 30 October 2007), the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle and the Aermacchi M-346 <http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/yak/> .
Alenia Aermacchi claim that the M-346 Master is the “only new generation advanced lead-in fighter trainer aircraft currently under development in Europe”, though it is actually based upon, and a development of the Yak-130, which first flew in prototype form more than twelve years ago, in 1996.
Aermacchi withdrew from the joint YAK/AEM-130 programme with the Yakolev Design Bureau and the Sokol Manufacturing Plant in July 2000, and opted to develop a derivative of the aircraft alone, as the M-346. The resulting M-346 prototype made its maiden flight in July 2004, and a second prototype followed in May 2005.
Alenia Aermacchi has worked closely with the Italian Air Force in the development and testing of the M-346. The first prototype was delivered to the Italian Air Force Flight Test Centre at Pratica di Mare in April 2007, for the first stage of a technical evaluation cycle.
This cycle included the production of a final aircraft evaluation report by the Air Force, whose contents were used to help finalize the final configuration of the production M-346. development and the industrialization phase of the new aircraft.
In July 2007, the second M-346 prototype flew to the United Arab Emirates for hot weather tests and operational evaluation by the UAE Air Force, and later appeared at the Dubai air show in November 2007.
The first pre-series or industrial base line M-346 (LRIP00) was rolled out at Venegono on 10 April 2008. This aircraft was structurally redesigned, with a 30% reduction in parts, increased use of composites (to 20% by weight) and titanium, a redistribution of wing spars and fuselage frames and a new reduced-weight landing gear. All this resulted in a reduction in empty weight of almost 700kg (1,540lb), which in turn contributed to a 20% performance improvement compared to the two prototypes.
Other changes included moving the airbrake forward by 0.9 m (2.9ft), the addition of an extra 200-kg of internal fuel, and representative embedded training simulation systems, and provision for stores management systems.
Following feedback from flight testing of the M-346 by pilots from the Italian air force, as well as Austria, France, Greece, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, minor changes were made to the cockpit instrumentation and layout, and the aircraft gained improved downward visibility in the rear cockpit.
The low-rate initial production aircraft first flew on 7 July 2008, later making its official ‘first flight’ in December 2008.
In that same month, the first M-346 made the type’s first supersonic flight, reaching Mach 1.15.
In May 2008, Alenia Aermacchi announced an agreement with the Support Systems Division of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems to jointly market the M-346.
Apart from the keenly anticipated order for 15 aircraft for evaluation by the Italian Air Force, Aermacchi have a number of prospects for their new trainer, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Advanced European Jet Pilot Training programme represents a potential order for about 200 aircraft for the air forces of nine countries (Finland, Sweden, Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Greece), while the aircraft is also a contender in ongoing and planned trainer competitions in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Ecuador, and Chile.
The Master at the Idex show when the announcement was made