Italian undersecretary for defence Lorenzo Forcieri has formally announced that his government is to grant funding worth €200 million ($270 million) to procure 14 Alenia Aermacchi M-346 advanced jet trainers for the Italian air force.
M-346 are also on offer to the UAE and the Eurotraining system
The money will be provided by Italy's economic development ministry, which has previously financed the production of two prototype aircraft currently being used during an extensive qualification, test and evaluation campaign.
The domestic order could be instrumental in securing future export sales of the M-346. The United Arab Emirates has shortlisted the aircraft - and Alenia Aermacchi's M-311 basic trainer - for its future training requirement, but had reportedly urged Rome to underline its own commitment to the aircraft before it would consider ordering the type.
The M-346 is also being offered for the proposed Eurotraining scheme, and negotiations are under way with nations including Greece and Poland, which have a near-term requirement for new advanced trainer fleets.
Alenia Aermacchi managing director Carmelo Cosentino welcomes Forcieri's statement, and says: "During the design, development and certification process, the M-346 was strongly supported by the Italian air force.
"I am confident that the statement of Mr Forcieri will drive a great credibility momentum to our aircraft."
To be delivered from 2009, the Italian air force's new aircraft will be used during the advanced stage of the service's training syllabus, and will also support the conversion of new pilots for the Eurofighter Typhoon and Italy's planned future fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Alenia Aermacchi recently launched the low-rate initial production of a first batch of 12 M-346s in anticipation of the domestic launch order, while its first pre-production example, representative of the final configuration, is in final assembly at its Venegono site.
The Italian air force has passed the mid-way point in its lease of Lockheed F-16s, having by late last month logged 22,500 flight hours with the type. Italy leased 34 F-16A fighters and four F-16B trainers from the US Air National Guard in 2003, and expects to complete the 45,000h contract during 2010.
The aircraft were acquired to provide an interim air-policing service between the retirement of Italy's Lockheed F-104 Starfighters and the entry into service of its Eurofighter Typhoons, which started delivering operational air defence missions earlier this year.
M-346s are also on offer to the UAE and for the Eurotraining system.