Trainer Jets for Israel: From the Skyhawk, to the Master

Nov 28, 2012 12:12 EST

After more than 40 years operating the A-4 Skyhawk, a maintenance scandal led Israel to conclude that its remaining Skyhawk’s needed to be replaced as advanced trainers. That triggered a $1 billion advanced trainer competition, and a major geo-political decision. In 2012, Israel made up its mind. The Italian M-346 Master will be their new trainer.

McDonnell Douglas’ A-4 Skyhawk, aka. “Scooter” (Navy) or “Dog” (Top Gun school) is best known for its long and storied career as a carrier-based attack aircraft; Sen. John McCain [R-AZ] was flying one when he was shot down over North Vietnam.

It also had a storied land-based career with the Israeli Air Force. Beginning in late 1967, the IAF used this simple, pilot-friendly aircraft as a versatile attack aircraft with surprising air-air teeth. In one engagement during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, an Israeli A-4 Skyhawk found itself facing 3 MiG-21s. The maneuverable little Skyhawk turned on them and brought 2 of them down, and was reportedly on the 3rd Fishbed’s tail when an IAF Mirage IIIC zipped through and blasted the MiG out of the sky.

The little A-4’s surprising maneuverability was coupled with an equally surprising ability to take battle damage, which made it a popular and reliable choice through several wars. The type’s last frontline role was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Israeli fleet took correspondingly heavy loses: of 102 aircraft lost, 53 were Skyhawks. Per mission losses in 1973 were actually just 0.6%, which was lower than the previous 1970 War of Attrition with Egypt. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall.

Israel’s induction of F-16s was a turning point for the Skyhawk, which declined in importance, but never vanished entirely from service. Some A-4s participated in the 1982 Lebanon War, and one even scored a MiG-17 kill. By that time, however, squadron migrations to the F-16 had already begun, and 33 of the Skyhawks had been sold to Indonesia. By the mid 1990s, almost all of Israel’s fighter squadrons had migrated, and 2000-2001 saw a handful of Israeli Skyhawks sold to corporate operators like BAE and ATSI.

M-346 in Singapore
by Mark Chen

A number of Israeli A-4E/H/N aircraft are currently stored at Ovda Air Base, some planes have been used as electronic warfare support aircraft, and others have been sold or leased to contractors like ATAC.

Meanwhile, the “Flying Tigers” of 102 Squadron at Hatzerim Air Base still use their A-4Ns and 2-seat TA-4Js for advanced IAF pilot training. Those planes needed maintenance, which was being provided by the contractor Kanfei Tahzuka, via Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Unfortunately, the little plane that could appears to have finally met its match. A combination of time’s wear and questionable maintenance performance grounded Israel’s Skyhawk fleet – and are about to lead to a replacement buy.

After a long competition, a 2-way military deal was signed with Italy in July 2012. Israel should begin receiving its M-346 trainers beginning in mid-2014.

IAF Replacement Candidates

 

IAF F-16B
(click to view larger)

Candidates to replace the aircraft reportedly included converted IAF early-model F-16Bs, Boeing’s license-produced T-45TS Goshawk used by the US Navy, Finmeccanica’s M346 variant of the Yak-130, andKorea’s supersonic T-50.

The F-16s were reportedly a low-ranking option, because of the difficulty of transitioning from a primary jet trainer like the Fouga Magister or its T-6A turboprop replacement. They did not make the shortlist.

The T-45 Goshawk would have offered a welcome boost for Boeing’s closing production line, and could have been purchased with American military aid dollars. The flip side is that the US Navy hasn’t invested in giving them secondary mission capabilities beyond their training role. This option didn’t make the shortlist, either.

 

T-45 Goshawks

Militarily, the chosen M346’s performance profile, and theoretical ordnance-carrying capability in a pinch, are probably the closest to the Skyhawk’s. It was also designed with Italy’s F-35A/B purchase in mind, which reportedly gave it an advantage in Israel. Unlike its Russian Yak-130 counterpart, however, the M346 hasn’t been built and tested in a light attack version. Some Israeli systems will be added to the IAF’s trainers, in order to allow full pilot training, but the public-private TOR (IAI/Elbit joint venture) arrangement creates barriers to repurposing the jets for operational missions.

Beyond the military sphere, Finmeccanica has had to overcome doubts regarding Italy’s long-term political stability as a supplier, and its long-term economic stability as a customer. The latter is especially relevant, as future Italian purchases of Israeli equipment were the key to winning the deal. The Israelis believe that they have negotiated appropriate safeguards for that risk, and the July 2012 deal featured signed contracts for specific offsetting military purchases by the Italian government.

South Korea’s supersonic T-50 family came in 2nd, even though it offered the best aerodynamic performance of the available planes, with existing weapons integration that gave it the ability to operate as an “F-16 Lite” beyond its training role. It also had the apparent advantage of building on a wider base of defense industrial cooperation. Italy may hold aerial exercises with the IDF, but Israeli firms have made notable inroads into the Korean market with their UAVs, missiles, and radars. A TA-50 order could have represented the next step for both countries, initiating deeper cooperation and mutual trade that might have included Israeli cooperation toward a TA-50 with even broader light attack capabilities. An improved TA-50 trainer & light fighter would have the potential for significant ripple effects in the global arms market, and aligned Israel with both KAI and Israel’s close supplier Lockheed Martin. That high potential upside would have come with a corresponding cost, however, as this would have been Israel’s most expensive option.

Contracts and Key Events

2012

 

Winner.

Nov 27/12: Skyhawks for sale. that the Israeli MoD’s SIBAT department is advertising and promoting the sale of the country’s 44-plane T/A-4 Skyhawk fleet.

Some of those planes have been used in combat recently, though their latest service during the 2010 Gaza skirmish saw them dropping leaflets over the Gaza Strip. Israel will reportedly withdraw them from service in 2013, and if there’s no response by 2018, the aircraft will be scrapped. Israel’s SIBAT, incl. Presentation [PDF] | Israel Defense

Nov 7/12: Sub-contractors. Northrop Grumman announces that its LISA-200 Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS) has been picked by prime contractor Alenia Aermacchi to equip Israel’s M-346 trainers. They’ve been an M-346 supplier for 5 years, but this contract with Northrop Grumman Italia reportedly builds on the existing arrangements.

“The LISA-200 uses fiber-optic gyro technology, with additional features like high-speed data refresh rates and output. Northrop Grumman Italia has delivered more than 4,000 LISA-200 systems worldwide. NGC.
Sept 10/12: TOR Agreement. The Israeli Ministry of Defense reaches a $603 million agreement with the IAI/Elbit TOR consortium, which will operate and maintain the Future Trainer Program’s M-346 jets and associated facilities. Overall, the workshare breaks down to about $420 million for Elbit, and (by inference) $183 million for IAI.

Elbit has received an initial $27 million interim purchase order to get things moving, and the full contract will be signed in the next few weeks, once the government finishes lining up the financing. During the program’s Establishment Phase, Elbit Systems will set up the support and maintenance infrastructure, as well as the simulators and the rest of the ground training array. They will also provide the jets’ advanced avionics systems. Total value for this phase is $110 million over 3 years.

During the operational phase, Elbit Systems will provide about $310 million (current dollars) of support services over the agreement’s 20-year lifespan. Elbit Systems.

July 19/12: M-346 Deal Finalized. Italy and Israel sign a set of 2-way defense deals. Israel will get 30 M-346 trainers, for delivery beginning in mid-2014. It’s a $1 billion deal, with Alenia’s share announced at around $600 million. Israel will join Italy and Singapore as M-346 operators.

Going the other way, Israel’s IAI will supply 2 Gulfstream 550 “Eitam” Conformal Airborne Early Early Warning & Control (CAEW) planes, which can monitor airspace and even maritime areas in a wide radius around the aircraft,while performing ESM geo-location of emitters and ELINT communications interception. IAI’s share is 750 million, while Finmeccanica’s SELEX Elsag will supply $41 million worth of NATO standard C4 equipment. Italy is familiar with these aircraft, which have participated in a number of multi-national exercises at Decimommanu AB in Sardinia. Italy will join Israel and Singapore as G550 CAEW operators.

The last component of the deal is a shared IAI/Finmeccanica project for a high-resolution Italian OPTSAT-3000 surveillance satellite. Finmeccanica’s Telespazio is the prime contractor, with a $200 million contract to deliver the high-resolution optical OPTSAT-3000 satellite and ground segment, manage launch services, test the satellite on orbit and then operate it. IAI’s share is $182 million, to supply the core OPTSAT satellite. Read “Italy & Israel: A Billion-Dollar Offer They Didn’t Refuse” for full coverage and details.

Deals signed: M-346, G550 CAEW, Satellite.

July 1/12: Ministers approve. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman visits Alenia Aermacchi in Varese, Italy, ahead of this week’s expected signing of a deal for 30 M-346, and sees a demonstration of the aircraft. Meanwhile, an Israeli ministerial committee has reportedly approved the deal. Arutz Sheva | China’s Xinhua.

Feb 16/12: M-346 picked. Technically, Alenia is just the preferred bidder to IAI & Elbit’s TOR joint venture, with governmental approval required, and a contract award for 30 planes scheduled for later in 2012. If the expected billion-dollar contract is signed, deliveries would be expected to begin in the middle of 2014.

Globes sums up the situation:

”[Israeli MoD] director general Uri Shani made the decision to buy the M-346, and that Minister of Defense Ehud Barak still has to approve it…. The Air Force found that the M-346 cost less, and a defense official said that it better meets the Air Force’s needs. The defense 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.”

With respect to those “reciprocal procurements”, Italy is rumored to have pledged to buy IAI’s CAEW 550 AEW&C jets, and to jointly develop a new reconnaissance satellite with Israel. The IAF adds its own comments:

“I flew the Korean plane and it’s a lot like the F-16. In that aspect it has many advantages, seeing as it is easy to get used to the plane and… [move] directly to the F-16…. The Italian plane is a combination. It integrates the F-16, the F-15 and the Eurofighter. It’s a dual-engine aircraft while the Korean plane has one engine, which is an important security aspect, but has less experience than the Korean aircraft…. the conclusion that in spite of the lack of experience, the Italian plane…. already looks on to the F-35 and can be compatible with training for it. It prepares us better for the future…. We’re planning on adapting the plane to our needs, as well as adding Israeli systems that the cadets can get to know and practice on before they are acquainted with operational combat planes”.

There never was a formal RFP, and South Korea is reportedly quite unhappy. IAF in Hebrew | English || Finmeccanica release | Arutz Sheva | Israel’s Globes |Italy’s AGI | Chosun Ilbo || Flight International | Reuters.

M-346 picked

Feb 10/12: South Korea. Flight International reports that South Korea is upset at the process being used for the Israeli trainer deal – or rather, the lack of same:

“Speaking on 9 February, a South Korean source said officials from the country will use the meeting to express their anger at what they have defined as an “unfair” competition between the Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 and Alenia Aermacchi M-346. The South Korean government will demand that Israel’s defence ministry issue a formal request for proposals before making a selection, and that the latter is made according to the “known and fair practice”, the source said.”

Jan 19/12: Competition. Flight International:

“The South Korean government has been given until 28 January to update its industrial cooperation package…. A South Korean source said on 17 January that Israel had received a “very generous” offer from Italy and that his country would make an effort to match it.”

Jan 17/12: Competition. UPI is cautious about relaying a report that Italy has won the deal:

“Israel’s air force has reportedly recommended buying Italy’s M-246 Master advanced jet trainer, rather than South Korea’s T-50 Golden Eagle… The Israeli Defense Ministry is expected to announce which aircraft it has chosen “within a few weeks,” the Haaretz daily reported…. The contest has taken bizarre twists, so it might be premature to consider that the Italians will win the contract.”

The article correctly notes that just a couple of weeks ago, the T-50 was being talked about in similar terms. To the mix of geopolitical calculations underway, Israel must now add economic and financing prospects for Italy and the Eurozone, which could put a large dent in future cooperative deals.

2010 – 2011

KAI’s TA-50

Oct 10/11: T-50. The Jerusalem Post reports that KAI has formally partnered with Lockheed Martin in its bid to sell T-50 trainers to Israel, citing the advantage of being able to use American military aid funds. That possibility has been a live option since September (vid. Sept 15/11 entry), but this makes it official.

Oct 7/11: Italy. The Jerusalem Post reports that the Italian government is making an interesting offer of its own: 23-35 M-346 trainers, in exchange for 2 Israeli AWACS aircraft. The exact type of AWACS plane is not clear. IAI makes the Gulfstream 550 Nachshon CAEW jet, currently in service with Israel and Singapore. They can also convert existing passenger jets into Phalcon AWACS planes, as they’ve done for Chile (Boeing 707) and India (IL-76).

The Post quotes South Korea’s Ambassador to Israel Isloo Kim, who denied reports that South Korea would end a wide range of military deals with Israel if its planes loses:

“This is a commercial deal and the companies involved are negotiating. It will not affect the relations between our countries.”

Sept 19/11: Late RFP. The expected RFP is late, as it was expected in August. Flight International:

“Sources said on 19 September that the delay is “of a few weeks”, but added that a bigger delay may follow. This could be a result of pressure to shrink Israel’s defence budget and allocate money to solve social issues, the sources said.”

Sept 15/11: T-50. The Korea Herald reports that Lockheed Martin is setting up a T-50 final assembly plant in the USA. That makes perfect sense as it competes for the USA’s pending T-X trainer competition, and it also affects Israel’s buy. If the T-50 series can be considered an American product, that means Israel could buy it with American foreign aid dollars. The M-346 is unlikely to be able to offer that, which would give the Korean jet a significant edge.

The existing T-50 Golden Eagle contract reportedly states that KAI takes 70% percent of the production work, while Lockheed takes the rest.The firms would not address speculation that this ratio might be adjusted for the US T-X and /or Israeli competitions.

March 16/11: TOR JV. Elbit Systems Ltd. and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. sign a founder’s agreement, establishing a 50/50 joint venture called TOR to buy and maintain advanced training aircraft for the Israeli Ministry of Defense. The joint firm would:

”…supply the MoD with the products and services required for the Project’s execution… in accordance with a work sharing plan determined by the two sides. To the best of Elbit Systems’ knowledge, the MoD is currently reviewing contractual possibilities with regards to the Project, and in this context has provided to Elbit Systems and IAI a request for information (RFI). It is the intention of the two companies to submit a response to the RFI in the coming days through the Joint Entity.”

IAI is 100% state owned, so while it’s fair to call TOR a public-private partnership, there’s more state ownership here than meets the casual eye. SeeElbit Systems.

TOR JV

Nov 24/10: Finalists. Flight International reports that Israel’s shortlist is down to the KAI/Lockheed T-50 and Alenia’s M-346. Both firms have received RFIs, but the planes would be bought and operated by an IAI/Elbit joint venture that would sell flight hours on the type to the IAF. The companies “also want to assemble parts of the chosen type in Israel and equip it with some locally made systems.”

2008 – 2009

 

M-346 “Master”
Sept 21/09: Flight International reports that Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346 Master and the Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50 have emerged as the leading candidates to replace the Israeli Cheyl Ha’avir’s TA-4 Skyhawk advanced jet trainers.

Aug 2/09: T-50. As reports of Israeli radar cooperation to equip KAI’sTA-50 and F/A-50s swirl around the media, Israel has sent a formal delegation to evaluate and test-fly the T-50 as a potential replacement for its Skyhawks. During their 5-day stay, the delegation will test-fly the advanced trainer at the KAI headquarters in Sacheon, and visit an air force base in Gwangju to check a ground-based flight training system.

The 20-30 plane Lead-In Fighter Trainer order marks the first time in 40 years that Israel is considering purchasing a fighter jet not made either locally, or in the United States. Ha’aretz |Korea Times | Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo | China’s Xinhua.

Dec 10/08: Skyhawk. The Jerusalem Post reports that the Israeli Air Force has finally decided to retire its Skyhawks. It quotes a “top IAF officer”:

“The plane is old and we are discovering problems…. Because of its age we are finding ourselves investing a lot of attention and resources and therefore we have started the process of searching for a new plane to replace the Skyhawk.”

Skyhawks to go

Oct 5/08: Scandal. Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reportes that:

TheMarker found that the contractor failed to conduct checks on the system responsible for maintaining the aircraft’s altitude, as well as its exhaust and brakes systems. Moreover, when technicians found tire and wheel fractures, they were instructed to cover them with lubricant rather than mend the rifts.”

It is, perhaps, a testament to the aircraft’s ruggedness that no Skyhawk has yet been grounded, or suffered an accident, due to a safety malfunction. Nevertheless, the IAF isn’t about to push its luck. The service conducted a surprise inspection of the maintenance facility following the media reports, and in early October 2008 IAF chief Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan grounded the Skyhawk fleet based on what they had found.

IAI says they have offered complete cooperation with the government since the matter was brought to their attention. The situation remains in limbo, with no reports as yet of charges laid, other punitive action, or the lifting of the flight ban.

Appendix A: A Geo-Political Decision

 

IAF Mirage IIIC:
A cautionary tale?

Israel’s finalist list narrowed its jet trainer options, but expanded the political considerations involved in the deal.

On the one hand, there’s South Korea. Israeli firms are cooperating with South Korea on a wide range of defense projects, from mini-UAVs to ballistic missile defense radars. The ROK is quietly emerging as a significant military export market for Israeli firms, and that cooperation has the potential to grow further, via South Korean interest in Iron Dome rocket interceptors and other products. Unlike Europe, South Korea has good prospects for economic growth, and the country is steadily building a very credible defense industry of its own.

Israel needs military exports to keep its military industries strong, and to lower prices for Israeli equipment through volume production. That means acquiring at least 1 new client per decade who looks… well, a lot like South Korea.

On the other side of the deal, the T-50 Golden Eagle is an important national project for the Koreans. Their initial export sale to Indonesia took some of the pressure off, but they’re still very keen on exporting their jet to gain credibility abroad, and want to pick up momentum in America ahead of the USAF’s possible T-X decision. An Israeli “yes” would add credibility to their American ambitions, and would also help in places like Europe (vid. Poland). Israel is known as a careful buyer who insists on quality, and Israeli jets with offensive capabilities have good odds of gaining the coveted “combat proven” label. That, too, has value in the global market, especially when one of your jet’s key selling points is its high-end capabilities.

The ROK ambassador has said that this relationship would survive an Israeli “no”. The arms it buys from Israel are needed, and there’s an unexpected cultural connection in South Koreathrough the Jewish Talmud, of all things. The question is whether the relationship would remain as strong. Or, whether other relationships might grow to supplant it.

There is no shortage of candidates. Turkey is South Korea’s biggest arms export customer, and its Ottomanist Islamic government is hostile to Israel. Indonesia became the first export buyer for the T-50, and followed that purchase by buying Daewoo-built U209 submarines. The United Arab Emirates is still seen as a possible destination for the T-50. Etc. If the bilateral relationship with Israel doesn’t keep growing, and defense relationships with countries hostile to Israel dokeep growing, that’s likely to begin affecting South Korea’s foreign policies, as well as its defense ties.

That prospect must concern Israel, as it contemplates both potential partners.

Even if Israel does buy Korean, their experiences with France in the 1960s taught them that the risk of partner flips needs to be taken seriously. France went from Israel’s top weapon supplier to an arms embargo, as the country decided to seek favor and contracts with hostile Arab regimes instead. Lockheed Martin’s role as a co-bidder means that Israel needn’t worry about a T-50 embargo, as was the case with their Mirages – but Israel could conclude that a T-50 buy wouldn’t really change their future with South Korea.

 

 

On the other hand, there’s Italy. Under former Prime Minister Berlusconi, relations were friendly, and Italy has been a supportive ally. Israel needs allies in Europe, which is not a great future defense market, but is their main market for general economic exports. Europe becomes even more important following Israel’s discovery of huge gas fields off its Mediterranean coast. That gas must be exported, and Europe would be the prime destination. Currently, Russia and Turkey are key supply chokepoints for natural gas pipelines to Europe, though Italy’s pipeline to Algeria and Libya has some offsetting value. A pipeline through Turkey doesn’t make much sense for Israel, and even its plans to cooperate with Cyprus/Greece still leave Italy and Germany as next-step distribution hubs.

Berlusconi has stepped down, but even out of office, he will retain significant influence through Italy’s media. Israel will want long-term relations with Berlusconi, and Italy, to remain good. That could become tricky, given the European Left’s growing hostility toward Israel and Jews, but it’s not impossible.

Berlusconi’s exit removed some of that pressure, because it weakens the case for, and expectation of, a reward for long-standing ties. On the other hand, Italy has reportedly taken steps to expand the potential deal. A reported swap of M-346 trainers for Israeli AWACS jets is one way to strengthen those long-term ties, by making Israel both a high-profile export client, and the supplier of strategically important military hardware. The agreement reportedly included joint development of satellite projects, and the sale of Israeli UAVs. In the end, the AWACS and satellite rumors proved to be true.

Reports in Ha’aretz suggested that Israeli MoD Director-General Udi Shani inked a preliminary deal with his Italian counterpart in May 2011. That upset the Koreans, as did the lack of a formal RFP process before the Israelis announced the M-346 as their choice in February 2012. There were consultations, bids, and deadlines to improve offsetting industrial packages, but never a formal RFP.

Before the decision, DID wrote that:

“If Israel decides that their South Korean relationship is worth fighting for, the question may come down to whether or not they can find a way to keep the Italians close, and retain Berlusconi as a friend, while keeping the Koreans closer. If not, a hard choice lies ahead.”

Israel has made that hard choice, and must now wait to see if it was a wise choice. For all anyone outside the process knows, the decision may have been made on straight economics, based on the countries’ respective industrial commitments. There are early indications, however, that the decision is not being seen that way in South Korea. What happens next will bear close scrutiny, extending far beyond the confines of a single jet deal.

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