At the moment, the 41st Training Aviation Base of the Polish Air Force operates 8 Leonardo M-346 Master jets, already complying with the Air Force’s requirements within the scope of training activities. The Armament Inspectorate of the Polish MoD began negotiation with the Leonardo company, pertaining to delivery of another 4 aircraft as such until 2020. Optionally 4 more aircraft could be acquired until 2022. Potentially, the fleet of the Polish AJTs may be doubled in quantity. Master is one of the most modern designs in its class.
16 M-346 Master aircraft, along with upgrade of the PZL-130 Orlik turboprop trainers to the TC-II version may be used beyond the domain of pilots training activities within the Polish Air Force. Numerous NATO member states, and Western Europe in general, will be seeking options to train their flying crews. Not only does this apply to the EU, but it is also a burning issue for Turkey or Sweden – the said states are still using Alpha Jet, T-38 or Saab 105 trainers to conduct advanced pilot’s training. These aircraft date back to the 1960s and 1970s, and since some time now they have been considered to be obsolete. Replacement should have been done quite some time ago.
Not Only a Trainer - A Whole Training System
Advanced European Jet Pilot Training programme may be viewed as an indirect cause for circumstances mentioned above, emerging in the EU. The aforesaid initiative has been pursued by EDA (European Defence Agency) since 2009, with no successes in reaching a reasonable consensus.
Within the framework of the programme mentioned above, MoU has been concluded, concerning the pilots training programme based around the M-346. However, among the EU member states, only Poland and Italy have decided to procure the platform in question.
Here we are referring to a comprehensive Integrated Training System including the jet and the Ground Based Training System facilities. LVC (Live-Virtual-Constructive) simulation is the core of the ITS component, making it possible to correlate the simulator and the jet on mission staying airborne. This translates into an ability to conduct joint training between the persons flying the simulators on the ground and the aircraft remaining in the air.
M-346 has been fitted with the ETTS (Embedded Tactical Training System) which simulates tactical training and replicates the operation of sensors, systems and weapons used by the existing combat aircraft. The aforesaid solutions also makes it possible to create tactical scenarios, simulate airborne, maritime and land-based units (friends or foes), through a real time interaction with the trainer aircraft. A jet that is airborne may be coupled with a number of GBTSs designed for Masters.
Dęblin as the Europe’s Pilots School?
Not only may the M-346 platform be used to train future F-16 drivers, as the jet’s capability also allows it to be used to conduct training for other fighter aircraft, including Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafale, JAS39 Gripen or, finally, the F-35. The above factor is especially important in case of the latter jet the twin-seater variant of which is non-existent.
At the moment, a major market demand exists to provide capabilities as such. Numerous countries also train their pilots on the older T-38 Talon jet in the US. The Americans are looking for potential replacement of the T-38 within the framework of the T-X programme. There, T-100 is being considered as one of the options - it is an “American” variant of the M-346 jet.
Two training centres, on the other hand, exist in Europe, including ground infrastructure with simulators and physical M-346 Master jets. These are the Italian 61st Wing Lecce-Galatina Airbase and the 41st Training Aviation Base in Dęblin, Poland.
According to the representatives of the Leonardo company, the aforesaid facilities may become the leading advanced pilot’s training centres in Europe. Italy already remains in possession of enough M-346 aircraft to allow for using them to train own pilots and instructors who would be working with the M-346 platform in the future.
Back in 2015, Ministers of Defence of Italy and the Netherlands concluded a memorandum on training of RNLAF pilots at Lecce-Galatina, with the use of the Italian Masters. This was the first contract like that ever signed. Nonetheless, the European states show a great demand within the said scope.
The above applies to France or Germany who remain in possession of quantitatively expansive fleet of combat aircraft. The problem may also become a burning matter for the Netherlands or Belgium – here maintaining a modern training infrastructure may turn out to be costly. For the United Kingdom the issue is not so serious, since the British have recently procured the Hawk T2 jets (Hawk Mk. 128) back in 2006. This training platform is derived from an aircraft dating back to 1974, nonetheless it has been fitted with a glass cockpit, adopted to facilitate training of Typhoon pilots.
Also, smaller states could also be interested in making use of Masters, when training their air force personnel.
Combat Master for Poland?
Leonardo has also developed a combat variant of the M-346. It was noted above that the airframe in question exhibits a flight performance sheet close to the combat aircraft. M-346FT (Fighter-Trainer) was premiered during the Farnborough show back in 2016. A year later Leonardo unveiled the M-346FA (Fighter-Attack) jet in Paris.
The aircraft in question may be used with a wide range of armament, including AAMs (AIM-9L/X and IRIS-T), air-to-ground Brimstone or anti-ship Marte-ER (with a range of more than 100 km) missiles. The jet may also use guided bomb units (US-made GBU-38 JDAM, GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II, Paveway IV, and Israeli-made Lizard 2+ and Lizard 4) and unguided rockets or gun pods. The available external stores also include fuel tanks, reconnaissance and EW pods.
In total, 2 tonnes of armament may be carried with the use of 7 hardpoints. M-346FA also utilizes Grifo-346 multifunctional radar that may track up to 10 targets at once while simultaneously conducting the scanning procedure. Look-Up mode maximum range is defined as more than 50 NM. Master configured in this way is to replace the Italian AMX platform. However, such aircraft may also be interesting for the foreign buyers.
The manufacturer expects to witness a lot of interest in such configuration in Poland. The Leonardo representatives note that M-346 Master is going to be offered to Poland as a potential replacement of the Su-22 attack aircraft. Obviously, Master cannot be a replacement of a “full-sized” multirole fighter jet, however they could potentially be used in asymmetric warfare context and CAS, which may be justifiable.
Should more M-346 Master jets be available, in training and combat variety, the maintenance cost difference between the combat M-346 and a multirole fighter aircraft would be even more pronounced. This option is undoubtedly financially attractive, however, whether it fits the requirements defined by the Polish Air Force is a separate matter. Masters could carry out some of the missions undertaken by the Su-22, also decreasing the workload imposed on the minor quantity of the F-16 jets, for instance in case of training conducted for air defence and land units.
Procurement of another 4 or even 8 M-346 Masters, doubling their quantity in the Polish Air Force, shall be perceived as a positive signal. This means that the service is aware of the emerging training requirements.
Not only may the M-346s be used to train the pilots, but they are also a good measure to maintain the skill of the staff that completed the training programme. Training missions involving the combat aircraft may also benefit from potential involvement seen on the part of Masters.
One should hope that acquisition of further advanced jet trainers is an element of preparations undertaken before the Harpia programme begins. This would mean that the Polish MoD is making aware, planned steps towards increasing the insufficient quantity of pilots. Investment as such may also make Dęblin more relevant, rendering the facility as an important centre for NATO/EU pilot training activities.