DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Training aircraft took center stage at the 2019 Dubai Airshow, as defense contractors from around the world showed off trainers and their attack variants to potential buyers.
One of the few major military contracts inked at the show was for trainer aircraft — a Nov. 20 order by the United Arab Emirates for 24 Calidus B-250 turboprop planes. But while companies from the United States, Russia, Italy, China and other nations also had their sights set on trainer sales to the UAE and beyond, they might be disappointed, analysts said.
“I don’t think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the Middle East right now,” said Douglas Royce, an aerospace analyst at Forecast International.
“I think that there are more programs visible because trainers are a natural entry point to build skills in military aircraft development if a government is looking to increase its capabilities in aircraft design and production,” he added. “But there will be very little demand for the finished aircraft beyond domestic requirements.”
The barriers to build trainer aircraft are very low, and the sheer number of available options keeps any one manufacturer from capturing a major portion of the market, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group.
"It’s sort of this weird, unimportant, low-stakes, low-payoff mutation of the aircraft industry,” he said. “People have them; and like any curse, if you have them, you kind of want to sell them to other people.”
Consumer demand currently allows each manufacturer to produce trainers for foreign customers at a rate of one or two aircraft per month, and Aboulafia expects that to continue over the next decade. However, he noted there are a number of countries that have existing requirements to buy training aircraft in the 2020s, including France, Australia, India, Greece, Peru, Spain, Brazil, Sweden and the UAE.
And if the Dubai Airshow is any indication, companies will be trying to grab a bigger piece of the pie.
Boeing displayed a quarter-scale model of its T-7A Red Hawk trainer at the show and brought a test pilot to answer questions from potential customers. As the winner of the U.S. Air Force’s T-X competition, Boeing is already guaranteed to sell at least 351 T-7As, but an industry source told Defense News that the company envisions orders for at least 2,000 T-7s.
Boeing is seeing “lots of interest” from the international market, particularly the Middle East, in the T-7, although it’s still in the “early days” of discussions, said Thom Breckenridge, Boeing’s head of international sales and marketing for strike, surveillance and mobility.
“We can’t go into specifics about the discussions that we’re having with individual customers, but obviously we’re here. We’re having a number of conversations with multiple customers,” Breckenridge said.
With the focus on delivering T-7A simulators and trainers to the Air Force starting in 2023, Boeing has been reticent to talk about potential T-7 variants, such as a version designed for attack missions or to play the role of an adversary in simulated combat. However, Breckenridge said, “there is a lot interest in moving beyond the trainer itself.”
“That’s also been part of the conversation that we’ve been having with customers outside the U.S.,” he added.
Boeing’s biggest competition in the realm of advanced jet trainers may be Italian defense company Leonardo, which has sold its M-346 Master to Italy, Singapore, Israel and Poland. Leonardo has also marketed a fighter/attack version of the Master — the M-346FA — which recently logged its first contract for six planes to an unnamed customer in July. It displayed the M-346FA on the flight line in Dubai.
Eduardo Munhos, Leonardo’s vice president for aircraft product solution and sales engineering, declined to detail nations where the M-346 has active campaigns, but the company sees opportunities to sell both versions of aircraft in the Middle East and beyond.
Leonardo is on track to deliver the fighter version of the aircraft in 2021, Munhos said. The company has already qualified M-346FA’s software and conducted some weapons testing, and the next step will be radar integration.
Once the attack version is delivered, Leonardo plans to step up its marketing activities.
“We have started promoting the airplane, but now we’ll be able to start to show the airplane doing the fighter mission,” he said. “We see that there is a — I won’t call it niche — but there is a requirement for light fighters growing in the world today, and we do believe the [M-346] is very well-positioned in that market.”
Leonardo is promoting the transonic M-346FA as a step up from most aircraft geared for the light-attack market, offering more speed, maneuverability and survivability than turboprops like Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano or Textron’s AT-6 Wolverine.
The M-346FA’s main competitors are Korea Aerospace Industries’ FA-50 — the fighter variant of KAI’s supersonic T-50 trainer — and, in the future, an attack version of Boeing’s T-7A.
But it’s unlikely that just one trainer manufacturer will be able to gain a lock on the light fighter market, Royce said.
“Creating light-attack versions of trainers is a very common idea, but a big market for them never develops,” Royce said. “I always look at Embraer, which has made one of the top light-attack aircraft in the Super Tucano, and how many have they sold every year?
"There is definitely a market for light-attack aircraft, but the total unit production for the segment is usually somewhere in the range of 20-30 aircraft per year.”
Russia’s defense industry displayed its own jet trainer at the Dubai Airshow this year: the Yak-130, which conducted flight demonstrations throughout the show.
The Yak-130 bears a close resemblance to Leonardo’s M-346, as the airframe was originally co-developed by Leonardo subsidiary Alenia Aermacchi and Russian aircraft manufacturer Yakovlev. After that partnership dissolved in 2000, Yakovlev spun the design into the Yak-130, which has found a life of its own in service in Russia, Algeria, Bangladesh and Belarus.
China’s supersonic L-15A trainer was also showcased in Dubai, with China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Cooperation, or CATIC, prominently displaying a large model of the aircraft in the forefront of its booth. Like the M-346 and other competitors such as KAI’s T-50, the L-15 is also available in an attack version.
A media representative for CATIC declined an interview with Defense News about the company’s sales expectations for the L-15. However, the aircraft has had some limited success in the trainer market and is in use by the Chinese air force and navy, as well as by Zambia.
Aboulafia said the L-15 is a notch higher in capabilities than its predecessor, the Hongdu JL-8 (also known as the K-8). But because of the L-15′s higher cost, it could be priced out of its core market — fledgling air forces like those of Pakistan and Myanmar. The Yak-130 is likely to retain steady sales to the international market, at a rate of one foreign plane per month, he added.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.