Over the past few weeks the Italian air force has been testing the Alenia Aermacchi M346 advanced trainer in a new role, mimicking a threat target as a “Red Air” aggressor in dissimilar air combat training (DACT) with front-line Eurofighter Typhoon fighters. Aermacchi has received considerable interest from a number of customers regarding this new capability, which highlights the versatility of the M346 and its ability to provide cost-effective, high-quality training that reduces the burden on the front line.
During the trials, the M346 flew as an aggressor against the Typhoons of the 4° Stormo (4th wing) at Grosseto, which parents both a front-line squadron and the Typhoon operational conversion unit (OCU). The datalink capability of both aircraft types allowed them to be fully interoperable, with no changes required. Trials were highly successful, and currently the Italian air force is writing the standard operating procedures necessary to introduce the aggressor capability into service.
Alenia Aermacchi claims that the M346 has much to offer in this role, notably its ability to fly for extended periods at sustained g forces. For instance, the aircraft can sustain a 5g turn for 20 minutes. Current aggressor types in use are either older trainers and fighters that do not represent a modern threat, or front-line fighters that are very expensive to operate and do not have the endurance when maneuvering hard because of the need to use afterburner.
In addition to the aggressor role, Alenia Aermacchi is highlighting the related function of companion trainer. The company is seeing an increasing need for post-OCU training to maintain proficiency and to bring pilots up to higher states of combat readiness.
With its high maneuvering and climb performance–as well as embedded virtual training systems that allow the replication of threats, weapons and radar in the cockpit–the M346 could find a place alongside front-line aircraft to offset flying hours from the operational fleet, in addition to its more traditional Phase 3/4 advanced/tactical training duties. In a companion trainer concept, front-line pilots could accomplish some of their training requirements in the M346, especially those who are newly qualified in the operational type.
Italy’s air force was the first customer for the M346 (designated T-346A in air force service), with a stated aim of acquiring 15. Nine have been ordered so far, serving with the 61° Stormo (61st wing) at Lecce-Galatina. Last month it was announced that some Dutch pilots will train with the Italian unit, particularly those destined to fly the F-35 JSF.
Alenia Aermacchi has also delivered M346s to Singapore and Israel (the type is known as the Lavi in Israel) and has begun construction of eight aircraft for Poland, with the first set due for delivery in November. The type is also in the running for the U.S. Air Force’s T-X advanced trainer requirement.