Early July the Israeli Ministry of Defence announced its approval to buy thirty Italian M-346 Master jets worth over one billion US dollar. A day earlier, deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman had visited the factory in Varese for a demonstration. “Beyond the security contribution of acquiring the plane, it is another step in strengthening the ongoing relations between Israel and Italy and will contribute to the economy of the two countries”, he was quoted as saying.
In the highly contested fighter trainer aircraft deal, Alenia Aermacchi – a daughter company of the Finmeccanica weapons conglomerate, Europe’s third largest arms producing company – won over a bid by Korea Aerospace Industries.
To help winning the contract, the Italian government has promised to buy Israeli weapons and other military equipment worth at least 1 billion dollar. The Italians will reportedly procure Israel Aerospace Industries’ spy planes and will jointly develop a new reconnaissance satellite with Israel. For Italy it has been an important win to get its arms industry going in times of falling national budgets; for Israel’s growing arms industry sales to Italy mean new export opportunities in Europe.
Media further reports that “the defence establishment said that the officials responsible for the deal were well aware of Italy’s shaky economic conditions, and that measures for dealing with this have already been coordinated with the Ministry of Finance to prepare a package of guarantees for reciprocal procurements.“
Apart from the long running controversial German submarine deal with Israel, this is the largest single arms deal a European country concluded with Israel over the past decade.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom together represented some 85 percent of the 1.55 billion euros of EU arms export licences to Israel for the period 2001-2010. Italy, thus far never reported exports exceeding a few million euros a year.
The M-346 was developed from the early 1990’s under a joint venture with Russian aerospace company Yakovlev, based on its Yak-130. Since 2000 Alenia has the sole marketing rights outside former Soviet Union territory. Besides Israel, only Italy (15 planes) and Singapore (12) have ordered the fighter trainers.
As most fighter trainers the aircraft can be used in an offensive role as well. For that purpose the M-346 has a provision for nine pylon stations which could take a maximum of three thousand kg. in bombs and missiles. See p.6/7 at http://viewer.zmags.com/publication/073fc069#/073fc069/6
While of course Israel has much more capable F-16 fighter aircraft, in times of war it could very well use the trainers as bomber aircraft. That is also how its predecessor, the A-4 Skyhawk, was heavily used in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Similarly BAE Systems Hawk aircraft were also sold to Indonesia as trainer aircraft. As feared by many peace activists at the time, they were allegedly used in bombing runs to oppress the East Timorese struggle for independence.