AleniaAermacchi trains sights on US market for M346 sales

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VENEGONO, Italy -- AleniaAermacchi has revealed a multi-pronged strategy for offering the M346 trainer and light attack fighter for potentially hundreds of orders in the US defence market over the next decade.

The company has already responded to a US Air Force request for information issued last month for up to 100 light attack and armed reconnaissance (LAAR) fighters. AleniaAermacchi also will respond by 25 September to a USAF request for information about supplying either 350 or 500 trainers to start replacing more than 500 Northrop T-38s after 2017, senior AleniaAermacchi officials say.

Thirdly, AleniaAermacchi believes the USAF may need to buy up to 100 "gapfiller" jet trainers by 2014 to replace the Lockheed Martin F-16 as an intermediate trainer for single-seat Lockheed F-35 fighters, company officials say.

The USAF currently uses two-seat F-16s to help new pilots transition from the 5g-limited T-38 trainer to the single-seat, fifth-generation F-22.

New pilots assigned to fly F-35s may require a similar intermediate step, but the USAF possibly lacks enough spare F-16 to serve as trainers, Alenia officials say. The M346 can replicate the F-35's fly-by-wire controls, high-g manoeuvres, communications suite and glass cockpit, Alenia officials say.

The gapfiller requirement "could happen", a senior Alenia official adds, "and we would be ready for it".

AleniaAermacchi is preparing to launch full-rate production for the M346 in 2010 to fulfil pending orders by the Italian Air Force and United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the USAF is getting set to buy a new advanced trainer for the first time since T-38 production ended in the early 1970s. Separately, the USAF has expressed interest to buy up to 100 light attack fighters, although its requirement appears crafted to suit a turboprop fighter-trainer such as the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 or Embraer Super Tucano.

AleniaAermacchi acknowledges the M346 lacks 5hr endurance, a loiter capability called for in the USAF's request for information. However, company officials note, the M346 can be refuelled in the air by another, "buddy" M346. Overall, for AleniaAermacchi's M346 proposal to move forward, USAF officials may have to rethink their speed and performance requirements for the LAAR fleet.

Meanwhile, AleniaAermacchi confirms there are ongoing discussions with Northrop Grumman to potentially install the scaleable agile beam radar (SABR) for the light attack M346. Export rules that prevent installing active electronically scanned array (AESA) technology on aircraft designed by foreign companies, however, remains an issue, company officials say.

AleniaAermacchi is considering several options for building the M346 on US soil. Perhaps most attractive is the opportunity to open a multi-use facility for both C-27Js and M346s. Alenia Aernautica originally planned to build the C-27J at Cecil Field, Florida, and that remains an option. Another idea is to tap a facility in Elizabeth City, North Carolina operated by DRS Technologies, a US-based company that AleniaAermacchi parent Finmeccanica acquired last year.