FARNBOROUGH, England — Leonardo-Finmeccanica has launched a new dual role version of its M-346 jet trainer, which will be able to switch from training pilots to handling combat operations.
The aircraft, which will fly at the Farnborough Air Show on Monday and Tuesday, will be known as the M-346FT and will be ready for service within two years, managers said at the show on Sunday.
Apart from armaments, the aircraft will feature a new tactical datalink, but no hardware changes to the trainer, and the firm expects trainer customers Israel, Poland and Italy to order retrofits to their aircraft to render them dual role.
Leonardo-Finmeccanica said the dual role aircraft would use its five hard points to mount Homeland Security, Tactical Reconnaissance or Ground Attack missions.A RecceLite pod has already been integrated, as have new auxiliary tanks, while work is underway to integrate a Radar Warning Receiver and Chaff and Flare dispenser.
Armaments that the plane will be able to carry include the GBU-12 and -49 laser-guided bombs, GBU-38 JDAM, Lizard laser guided bomb and Small Diameter Bomb as well as a gun pod. The Iris-T is already being trialed, and the AIM 9L will be intergrated.
Discussing the addition of reconnaissance capabilities to the aircraft, test pilot Enrico Scarabotto said that the M-346FT would have been cheaper to fly on recon missions in Afghanistans than the Tornados used by Italy for the mission.
The M-346 joins a growing number of jet trainer producers looking to extend their market reach by adapting their aircraft for light combat duties, including the South Korean T-50. India's HAL, supported by BAE Systems, is looking at developing a big wing version of the Hawk for combat duties. The British have experience in such redesigns after offering a Hawk 200 light attack jet over two decades ago.
Some 68 M-346 trainer aircraft have meanwhile been ordered to date by Italy, Singapore, Poland, and Israel — the latter of which has already flown 13,000 sorties with its aircraft. Talks are under way with Taiwan, though managers suggesting the country may seek to develop its own aircraft, based on the M-346, in cooperation with Leonardo-Finmeccanica.
The Italian firm has teamed with Raytheon to pitch the aircraft in the US TX trainer competition.
On the eve of the Farnborough Air Show, the Italian Air Force ran its first air-to-air refueling mission using its M-346 trainer. Two the aircraft were refueled by an Italian Air Force KC-767A aircraft.
As its develops its M-346 for combat, Leonardo-Finmeccanica is also developing the M345, a lower level jet trainer. Speaking at the show on Sunday, the head of the firm's aircraft division, Filippo Bagnato, said Italy would sign an order for an initial five aircraft this year, once the Italian parliament had authorized the deal.
The aircraft will likely enter service in 2018, he said, and a dual role version is being considered.