PARIS – Italy's Leonardo expects to win a second order for its M-345 trainer jet later this year, said Emanuele Merlo, head of M-345 program development. 

"We have been selected by two international air forces and we are confident we will place a second contract by the end of the year," he told a press conference on the eve of the opening of the Paris Air Show.

Merlo declined to give further details, other than to say Chile is a potential client but is not one of the two air forces which have selected the M-345.

Click here to get full coverage from the Paris Air Show.

Italy placed in January a launch order for the trainer, which the company expects to lead to 45 units, he said. That contract followed the first flight of the prototype aircraft in December 2016. A first flight of the pre-series production jet is expected by the end of 2018, he added.

A "production ramp up" is expected for up to 20 units a year by 2021, he said.

Leonardo has put on static display an M-346 jet adapted to fly as a fighter attack jet, demonstrating a "new concept" for the trainer, Enrico Scarabotto, chief test pilot said. The light fighter would be offered to potential clients armed with seven weapons – five on underwing pylons and two on the wingtips – for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

An armed M-346 could also be fitted with a Grifo radar, or any other radar picked by the client; reconnaissance pod, defensive aids system, tactical datalink to the NATO Link 16 or any other standard.

The armaments would depend on the mission, but weapons such as joint direct attack munition, small diameter bomb, Brimstone, IRIS-T short-range missile and a gun pod could be fitted.

Prospective clients are interested in other modifications including a reduction of the radar cross section and a coating on the canopy to reduce signature.

That concept extends a basic-advanced and lead-in fighter trainer to a low-cost alternative to fighters such as the F-16, Eurofighter and Rafale, he said.  

Leonardo has fielded the M-346 in the U.S. T-X trainer tender, renaming it the T-100 for the competition. CAE USA supports the Italian company in the design and development of the T-100 ground-based training system and Honeywell provides twin F124 turbofan engines.

The M-345 contract covers five aircraft, an initial batch in an expected order of 45 units, Leonardo said. That trainer will replace 137 MB-339 aircraft which entered service in 1982. First deliveries will be in 2019.

Tom Kington from Rome contributed to this report.