Two years after the first of Israel’s new top-of-the-line trainer jets rolled onto the tarmac, the last batch of planes — acquired in a multi-billion dollar deal with Italy — landed in Israel Wednesday morning.
The three Aermacchi M-346s, known in the Israeli Air Force as the Lavi, complete a 30-plane, $1-billion deal inked in 2012 with the Italian government. Rome, in exchange, purchased an equivalent value of Israeli aerospace technology, including satellites and surveillance planes.
The Defense Ministry touted the deal’s contribution of millions to Israel’s defense industry, a tightening of ties with Italy, and the acquisition of a premier aircraft that will train the air force’s next generation of pilots.
The Lavi’s arrival in 2014 began the phase-out of the Skyhawk, the 1960s fighters acquired from the United States that operated as trainers for four decades.
The Italian jets made a star appearance in a video produced by the air force last month to welcome former Google CEO Eric Schmidt that took flak for its improper use of troops.
The Defense Ministry’s head of procurement, Shmuel Tzuker, said Israel chose wisely in 2012 to ink the deal for the M-346s with Italy instead of buying South Korea’s T-50 Golden Eagle.
After a lengthy testing and vetting process, which included comparing costs, specifications, maintenance, safety and quality of training, and despite South Korea’s threat to cancel contracts, the Defense Ministry opted to go with the Italian deal instead.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “the Italian plane was better than the Korean one.” He said that rarely did military contracts of such a magnitude go through with so few delays and so much satisfaction.
Tal, an air force lieutenant colonel in charge of Lavi operations, told The Times of Israel that the trainers have provided manifold advantages and “take [pilot] training much more forward.”
The jets, he said, are capable of training novice pilots in handling fourth-generation aircraft, like the F-16, and fifth generation planes, like the soon-to-arrive F-35. With its onboard simulators, pilots and navigators can now train to a more advanced level faster, and at lower cost to the air force, he said.
“It has met all our expectations and more,” he said.
The IAF was one of the first air forces to take on the M-346 (only Singapore currently operates it, but Italy and Poland have ordered aircraft), and with it came some concerns about its performance, but those have since been put to rest, Tal said.
“The aspects of the flight performance, its specifications, the capabilities it has, the savings in jet fuel, the safety from it being dual-engine, it has redundancy in almost every system on the plane,” the lieutenant colonel said. “We are very, very, very satisfied.”
Although the M-346 was also designed for use as a multirole combat aircraft, capable of carrying three tons of weapons, he wouldn’t comment on whether the IAF envisions such a role for the Lavi in the future.