Azerbaijan Buys the M-346 as Caucasus Stand-off Continues

 - February 27, 2020, 6:20 AM
Azerbaijan has selected the Leonardo M-346 in preference to the similar Russian Yak-130 trainer. (Photo: Leonardo)

Azerbaijan has signed a preliminary agreement to buy an unspecified number of Leonardo M-346 Master training/light attack aircraft, the website of the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced in late February. According to Azerbaijani sites, the number of aircraft to be purchased is between 10 and 25 (10 plus an option for 15). The procurement process is being closely watched in Yerevan, capital of the regional adversary, Armenia, which occupies 20 percent of Azerbaijan (Nagorno Karabakh and the adjacent Azerbaijani territories).

Sources in Baku highlighted the wording of the communiqué, which notes that Azerbaijan is buying a "system.” They told AIN that it means, as well as the aircraft, the system includes elements such as ground-based training aids. The M-346 is capable of instructing fifth-generation multirole fighter pilots. It will replace the current Azerbaijan Air and Air Defense Forces trainer fleet that operates elderly Czech-made L-29 Delfin and L-39 Albatros aircraft.

Meanwhile, Baku sources confirmed news circulating in Russian defense industry circles concerning Azerbaijani interest in acquiring the fifth-generation Su-57 from Russia. Azerbaijani military leaders apparently also considered the Yak-130 for the trainer requirement. Baku subsequently dropped the Yak-130, as it is heavier and less maneuverable than the M-346. Although it is priced one-third lower than the M-346, there was also the question of engines. The Yak-130 flies with two AI-222-25 engines that were manufactured in Ukraine at the Ivchenko-Progress facility. With the 2014 breakup of ties between the Ukrainian and Russian partners, engine production in Russia faced grave problems. The Yak-130 and M-346 both stemmed from the Yak/AEM-130 joint venture between Yak and Aermacchi, but the design was further developed independently by the two partners.

Armenian field air defense assets are almost exclusively made in Russia. Azerbaijan's are largely produced there. Armenia’s recent procurement of Su-30SM multirole fighters has certainly accelerated the Azerbaijani Air Force's incentive to acquire new assets.

The Azerbaijan Air and Air Defense Forces currently deploy squadrons of MiG-29 and Su-25 fighter/ground attack aircraft, retaining some 20 overhauled MiG-25 supersonic interceptors in reserve. There is also a strong rotary-wing component consisting of more than 60 airworthy Mi-17 transports and approximately 40 Mi-24/35 helicopter gunships, including some Mi-24Gs that were upgraded by South African company ATE (now Paramount Aerospace) and Ukraine.

Azerbaijan gained superiority over Armenia in fielding recce/attack UAVs and UCAVs, including Israeli-made Elbit Hermes-450/900s. Unmanned air assets are exclusively Israeli-made or assembled in Azerbaijan within the framework of a bilateral cooperation agreement. In terms of air defenses, Azerbaijan deploys medium-range S-300PMU Favorit systems (16 launch units), Tor-M2Es (eight units) as well as nine launch systems (75 missiles) for medium-/long-range IAI Barak-8s and an unspecified number of short-range Rafael Spyders acquired through a 2012 contract with Israel worth $1.6 billion.

On the other side, the Armenian Air and Air Defense Forces field a squadron of Sukhoi Su-25s (mostly second-hand from Georgia and Slovakia), and recently took delivery of the first batch of four Su-30SMs, with another eight due for delivery over the next two years. The rotary-wing component is much smaller than that of Azerbaijan. For air defense, Armenia seems to have a slight advantage over Azerbaijan: a significant number of S-300V (other sources say S-300PS) missile systems provide better coverage of the country’s territory, which is smaller than that of its neighbor. Both adversaries still deploy obsolete, Soviet-era air defense systems, such as the S-125 and S-75 missiles, and self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery.

There was a large discrepancy between 2019 defense budgets: Azerbaijani expenditure last year reached $2 billion, while Armenia spent approximately one-third of that money on defense. As the key power in the region, Russia keeps a close eye on arms procurement by the two adversaries that face each other along a 130-mile line of contact in Karabakh, which is part of Azerbaijan but has been occupied by Armenian forces since the early 1990s.

Currently, the situation on the line of contact is generally calm, with no major activity being observed in the air or on the ground, the most recent being during the 2016 "Four-Day War.” Nevertheless, small-arms sniper fire is commonplace, a leader of Cocuq Mercanli village near the Iranian border, some 700 yards from the line of contact, told AIN during a visit there in February.