ROME — Leonardo will mount a 20-millimeter Nexter gun on the fighter version of its M-346 jet, the Italian firm said on Thursday, a day after announcing a tie-up with Airbus to market its trainer version of the aircraft.

Leonardo and Nexter will integrate the French firm’s 20M621 gun pod on the M-346FA light fighter to offer greater range and precision than the 12.7mm gun supplied by Belgium’s FN Herstal, which is already offered with the aircraft.

An ITAR-free product, the Nexter gun recovers all casings after firing, the maker said, referring to the U.S. regime of arms export rules that places restrictions on sales of weapons with American components.

The M-346FA, which has reportedly been sold to Turkmenistan, can integrate air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions and targeting pods linked to Helmet Mounted Displays.

The fighter is a variant on Leonardo’s M-346 jet trainer, which has been sold to customers including Italy, Israel, Poland, Singapore and Qatar, racking up 100,000 flight hours.

On Wednesday, Leonardo and Airbus announced a memorandum of understanding which could open the way to the aircraft being more widely adopted in Europe.

In a statement, the firms said they would “jointly address and pursue business opportunities for the provision of advanced training systems leveraging on the M-346′s proven experience.”

They added, “Airbus and Leonardo will also explore deepening ties and industrial cooperation to tackle future military pilot training domains. All based on cooperation and synergies on specific platforms and programs, also in the framework of a broader European and international collaboration.”

Airbus has been planning to build its own trainer for over 20 years, dating back its mulled Mako project when the firm was known as EADS.

But the firm has never taken a project further than the drawing board, and its tie-up with Leonardo appears to suggest it could be open to supplying the M-346 to its home markets in Europe.

As countries like Spain and Germany continue to rely on aging trainer aircraft, the need for high-tech training is growing as countries order more sophisticated jets like the F-35.

In their statement, Leonardo and Airbus predicted the European “advanced trainer” market would amount to more than 400 new aircraft in the next 20 years, plus an additional €12 billion ($13 billion) for training services.

“Leonardo is globally recognized as a key player in the military pilot training business segment and we believe our synergies could give the right answer to our customer requirements,” said Brice Dumont, Head of Military Air Systems at Airbus.

German pilots have already been sent to train at Italy’s flight training school in Sardinia which uses the M-346 and may be proving an efficient promotional tool for the aircraft as pilots from around the world are sent to the base.

Qatar’s M-346 purchase, revealed last year, is part of a wider jet training deal between Italy and Qatar launched in November 2020 which has brought Qatari Phase 4 training pilots to Sardinia to train.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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