AleniaAermacchi: Italian Air Force to sign M346 deal within weeks

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VENEGONO, Italy -AleniaAermacchi expects to sign a contract "within weeks" with the Italian Air Force to deliver 15 M346 advanced jet trainers.

The long-awaited contract will kick off a flurry of international sales activity for the M346 over the next several years, starting with completing negotiations with the United Arab Emirates by end-year to supply 48 M346 trainers and light attack fighters.

Singapore is also expected in December to select between the M346 and the KAI/Lockheed Martin T-50 for a potential order of 10-15 trainers to be based in France.

AleniaAermacchi plans to launch full-rate production of the M346 in 2010, with a new final assembly centre now being constructed that will feature automated drilling and machining and rotating jigs.

Meanwhile, the M346 is scheduled to complete type certification in 2010, AleniaAermacchi officials say. The plan is also to start weapons certification testing next year. The M346 has three "wet" stations to carry fuel and nine stations overall to store fuel tanks or guided weapons.

Over the next five years, AleniaAermacchi plans a broad sales push to at least 10 potential foreign customers, including the USA, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Eurotraining, Qatar, Indonesia and Chile. Israel is also understood to be considering the M346 as a lead-in trainer for the Lockheed F-35.