Trainers on target

By Craig Hoyle

Trainer deals are set to dominate this month's IDEX show in Abu Dhabi as the UAE prepares to name the victors in two contests

It has been a long search, but if industry predictions are correct, the United Arab Emirates is set to announce the winners in its parallel contests to acquire new fleets of basic and advanced jet trainers (AJT).

After a slow-moving process that has spanned almost a decade, the decisions could be announced during the ninth International Defence Exhibition & Conference (IDEX), which will take place in Abu Dhabi from 22-26 February. If confirmed, the news will dominate the air sector of the tri-service event, which is traditionally focused on the equipment needs of the UAE and does not have a flying display.

The UAE launched a major expansion to its air force capabilities in the late 1990s, and early this decade concluded a long-awaited order for a fleet of 80 highly advanced Lockheed Martin F-16E/Fs to join an inventory of Dassault Mirage 2000 and new Mirage 2000-9 fighters.

In addition to challenging its ability to source pilots for what were at the time the most advanced combat aircraft in the Middle East region, the purchase also prompted the UAE to review its entire aircrew training mechanism to prepare for a fourth-generation strike fleet.

Current jet trainers operated by the UAE include 36 BAE Systems Hawk 60- and 100-series airframes from the 47 delivered between 1983 and 1995, plus six Alenia Aermacchi MB-339s, according to Flight's MiliCAS database. In the basic trainer sector, its air force operates 31 Pilatus PC-7s fielded between 1982 and 1993, and 12 Grob G115s are also in service to deliver primary training services.

To close the gap between its existing assets and the future fleet of F-16E/Fs, a process was launched that was intended to replace the legacy trainers with the best that the market could offer.

Early interest was shown in addressing the AJT element of the training syllabus, and the UAE soon focused its attention on EADS's Mako high-energy advanced trainer, an ambitious supersonic design created primarily to meet the needs of European operators, including Germany.

So impressed was the UAE that it went on to sign a memorandum of understanding to participate in the Mako project, potentially opening the prospect of industrial participation for its fledgling domestic companies. But crucially, its commitment fell short of agreeing to be the launch customer for the Mako.

The design subsequently failed to meet the common requirements of the proposed Advanced European Jet Pilot Training (AEJPT) system, which favoured a twin-engined configuration, and the trainer and light attack project was shelved by EADS.

Subsequently, the UAE narrowed its focus to three candidates each in the basic and advanced categories, respectively the Alenia Aermacchi M-311, Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano and Pilatus PC-21 and Alenia Aermacchi's M-346, BAE's Hawk 128 and the Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50.

Speculation mounted in the build-up to the 2007 Dubai air show that selections could be made during the event, as in-country flight evaluations had been conducted earlier the same year. However, the UAE instead opted to narrow the competitive field, eliminating first the Hawk and then the Super Tucano from its consideration.

Now, more than 15 months on, industry sources believe decisions are imminent. "We expect that the United Arab Emirates will shortly make a decision about a final selection of the chosen aircraft," says Alenia Aermacchi. A source close to another of the bidding companies goes further, saying: "We are expecting an announcement during the show. It's a lot more realistic this time around. All the indications are that they want to get this over and done with."

Previous plans have outlined requirements for 30-40 basic trainers and between 15 and 24 AJTs, but firm numbers are only expected to be decided after a training syllabus has been created for the selected types. However, one industry source suggests that the basic trainer deal could now be for just 20-30 aircraft, representing a closer match to the UAE's current inventory of ageing PC-7s.

Much has happened with the four remaining types on offer since they first came into contention for the lucrative contracts in the UAE, with two having entered frontline use, another awaiting the signature of its launch order and the last seeking a full development programme.

As the only company shortlisted in both categories, Italy's Alenia Aermacchi has advanced the development of its M-311 and M-346 models, but placed particular emphasis on the latter type, which is close to a first production order from the Italian government. A contract for 15 examples for the nation's air force and an associated support package is close to signature, the company says.

"Production has already been launched on some aircraft parts," says Alenia Aermacchi, which initially expects to build 18 M-346s a year at its Venegono facility near Milan, but the company could complete 24 using existing infrastructure.

Recently rebranded as the "Master", the twin-engined M-346 is close to completing its development programme, with a first prototype having early this year reached a speed of Mach 1.17. Additional work is expected to soon clear the aircraft to fly at its maximum angle of attack of around 40°.

Confidence in the programme has also swelled since last July, when the first Honeywell F124-200-powered low-rate initial production example took to the air, boasting manufacturing improvements and an empty weight around 700kg (1,540lb) lighter than the two previous prototypes.

The M-346 is in a two-way battle with the KAI/Lockheed T-50 in the UAE, and the same two platforms are also under consideration in Singapore. But the European model is the lead candidate to deliver the now nine-nation AEJPT deal, and Alenia Aermacchi cites other potential future customers as including Chile, Greece, Poland and Portugal - all of which have previously signed industrial co-operation agreements linked to the type, plus Ecuador, Indonesia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Alenia Aermacchi also in 2008 signed a strategic marketing agreement with Boeing to promote the M-346 on the international stage, with the latter to provide its services in delivering training and support packages. The Finmeccanica company also believes its product could meet the future requirements of the US Air Force as a replacement for the Northrop T-38 Talon.

A modern development of Aermacchi's legacy S-211 and first flown in demonstrator form in June 2005, the M-311 on offer to the UAE has also attracted interest from Australia, Chile, Jordan, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UK, its developers claim. "With these and other crucial competitions in mind, Alenia Aermacchi is negotiating important international agreements for the programme development phase," it adds.

However, the company is counting on the jet design to go one better in the UAE than it did in Singapore, where it lost out to the Swiss-built PC-21 under a Basic Wings trainer programme awarded to prime contractor Lockheed.

Pilatus last year completed deliveries of the 19 PC-21s ordered for Singapore, and the Asian state's first batch of students are currently receiving training on the type. An initial batch of six which will be used to directly prepare pilots for operations with the Swiss air force's Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornet fighters have also been handed over, and Pilatus now needs a fresh buyer for the PC-21 to maintain its strong early momentum with the new-generation turboprop.

In addition to its hopes in the UAE, other possible near-term possibilities for the company include through potential business with an undisclosed Middle Eastern nation, and in delivering part of the UK Military Flying Training System beneath the Royal Air Force's future fleet of 28 Hawk 128s.

As the other team bidding for the UAE's advanced trainer requirement, KAI attended the 2007 Dubai air show with great force, and with a sense of optimism linked to its ability to deliver industrial benefits to the region.

The company's T-50 has for several years delivered high-quality training to South Korean air force students, and Seoul also recently gave the programme a potentially significant boost, by approving state funds to develop an F/A-50 light attack version.

While this development is unlikely to be a factor in the UAE competition, the availability of a well-armed and radar-equipped variant of the Golden Eagle could interest several other nations in the Middle East region, as well as those countries seeking replacements for their Northrop F-5s over the coming years.

Although its Hawk 128 was eliminated from the UAE's AJT contest, BAE is pushing a wide-ranging upgrade package for legacy Hawks in service with the customer, and with other operators, including Middle Eastern states Oman and Saudi Arabia. The company will also use the IDEX show to promote the Eurofighter Typhoon, already on order for Saudi Arabia and the subject of ongoing discussions between the UK and Oman.

Boeing will be promoting products including its C-17 strategic transport and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet combat aircraft, but declines to identify any particular local sales opportunities. The company last year secured its first Middle Eastern C-17 sale, with Qatar, and has long identified legacy F/A-18C/D operator Kuwait as a possible opportunity for a follow-on Super Hornet deal.

"We keep our dialogue up with all the nations who operate the Hornet," says Tom Bell, head of business development for Boeing Military Aircraft.

"There are several in the Middle East talking to us about many of our products, including the Super Hornet," Bell says. With regard to further opportunities for the C-17, he comments: "Many customers understand that the C-17 is available. The level of interest in obtaining information doesn't appear to be tailing off."

Elsewhere, the UAE could also use the IDEX show to advance its long-held plans to acquire a fleet of maritime patrol aircraft. Its local industry is also likely to showcase a growing expertise in the unmanned air vehicle sector.

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