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November 7, 2019 | International, Aerospace

Leonardo sees market opportunity for M-346 attack variant in Middle East

By: Agnes Helou

Correction: Leonardo has corrected statements made about M-346 customers during a tour of one of its facilities by Defense News, and this story has been updated to reflect that.

BEIRUT — After the first order of its fighter attack variant of the M-346, Italian firm Leonardo is marketing the fighter jet in the Middle East, industry officials told Defense News, while noting that the training version was tested in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

“M-346 has been tested in Kuwait under hot conditions, passing all the tests successfully, and then it was also tested with the Italian Air Force in November 2018 in Qatar,” a Leonardo official said.

Defense News spoke to the official during a tour of the company's facilities in Venegono Superiore, Italy. Leonardo would not identify the M-346FA customer or the contract value, despite inquiries by Defense News during and after the tour.

The deal comes in the wake of increased interest for trainer jets — both those solely used for training and those able to perform close-air support missions — from Mideast countries seeking to expand their respective fighter fleets.

“There is an increasing need for trainer jets in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region as countries there work to expand their fighter fleets. The MENA nations have requirements for trainers also able to perform close‐air support missions," said Marco Buratti, Leonardo's senior vice president of international marketing and strategic campaigns.

“Among the most notable examples that have chosen Leonardo's training approach is the UAE's national aerobatic team, Al Fursan — widely recognized as one of the best in the world and considered as a UAE national pride — which uses the Aermacchi MB‐339 aircraft,” he added. “The Emirati pilots were trained in Italy and the UAE under the supervision of the Frecce Tricolori pilots using Italian aircraft and training systems.”

Leonardo offers its trainer customers the opportunity to send personnel to its International Flight Training School, where it trains pilots in four phases: primary training/screening; basic-advanced training; lead-in to fighter training; and an operational conversion unit.

Leonardo is a member of the Eurofighter consortium, which builds the Typhoon fighter jet. Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are among those in the Gulf region who have ordered the aircraft.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Italy has joined the United Kingdom's Tempest program for a next-generation fighter. Will the M-346 be the chosen trainer for that effort?

“M-346 demonstrated its capability as [a] trainer for Eurofighter and F-35. It is early to speak about Tempest program because we don't know yet how it will be inserted in the combat environment," a Leonardo official told Defense News. "First, we need to understand [the] Tempest combat environment, and then we evaluate the M-346 as a trainer for the Tempest, or if in 10-15 years from now Leonardo will have to evolve the training system towards a new combat environment that require[s] new training skills.”

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