ROME — The M-345 HET, the latest jet trainer to be developed by Italy's Leonardo-Finmeccanica, will be acquired by the Italian Air Force this year once the Italian government releases initial development funding, a senior defense source has told Defense News.

The new aircraft, which will prepare pilots to move up to the firm's advanced M-346 trainer, is edging towards first flights this year and may enter service by the end of 2018, company officials said.

Three years after the company announced it would develop the M-345 to replace its MB-339 trainer, Leonardo-Finmeccanica will be showing off the cockpit of the new aircraft at Farnborough, with officials calling the aircraft "unbeatable" for life cycle cost.

The M-345 basic-advanced trainer is based on the firm's planned, but never-produced, M-311 trainer, albeit with new engines, avionics and some structural aerodynamic changes.

The M-311 was in turn a development of the S-211, which was sold to the Philippines, Singapore and Haiti.

The M-345 prototype now being readied is based on the M-311. It will have the M-345's selected engine — the Williams FJ44-4M-34 — installed, and fly this year, officials said.

That will be followed by the flight by end 2017 of a pre-series aircraft which will feature the cockpit, complete with three multi-function screens and a Head Up Display for the pilot as well as three multi-function screens and a repeater of the HUD for the back seat.

The three-screen cockpit is similar to the M-346, even if Leonardo-Finmeccanica has decided that the version of the M-346 it will offer to the US in the TX bid will have just one large screen, in keeping with the F-35 configuration.

"We will keep a 'classic' cockpit with three multi-function screens on the M-345 because as a Phase II and III trainer, students could be selected to fly helicopters or multi-engine transports," said an official. "Furthermore, most of the 4th/5th-generation fighters today, and at least up to 2030, still feature a 3-MFD cockpit configuration."

The flight schedule, followed by deliveries in 2018, marks a slippage from earlier announcements of pre-series flights in 2016 and deliveries in 2017.

What could help accelerate the program is the €9 million in development funding that appeared in this year's Italian defense budget, the first money slated for the M-345 program. "A contract is likely to be signed this year," a senior defense source said.

The Williams engine is seen by Leonardo-Finmeccanica as a key selling point for the new aircraft, offering 3,400 lbs of thrust, ten percent more than the M-311.

Leonardo-Finmeccanica Aircraft Division officials have credited the engine with boosting the low life cycle cost of the new plane, which it says will be similar to or lower than that of a turbo-prop aircraft.

Thanks to its civil applications, the engine's parts are more widespread and cheaper than a military engine, lowering maintenance costs, they said.

After signing a letter of intent with the Italian Air Force to jointly develop the aircraft three years ago, Air Force pilots will undertake flight testing, as they did with the M-346, as well as contributing to developing the avionics and ergonomics.

The next step will be developing an armed version with four hardpoints — two on each wing. With 4,500kg maximum takeoff weight, the plane has a spare 1,200kg for armaments.

As with the M-346, Leonardo-Finmeccanica is trying to create an integrated training system, where the aircraft is just one of several components.

For the Italian Air Force, the firm envisages a desktop training system, a 220-degree simulator and a mission-planning and briefing system. "We don't plan a full mission simulator because in Phase II training students focus on navigation, instruments and general handling," said the official. "But we are ready to do a full mission simulator if the client requests it, especially if the M-345 will be used for tactical training," he added.

After contracting CAE to provide simulators for the M-346, the official said Leonardo-Finmeccanica might build simulators in-house for the M-345. "We are leaning to 'make' rather than 'buy,' since we have developed the capabilities," he said.