Israel has chosen to purchase air force training jets from Italy rather than South Korea, a decision that marks the end of a months-long saga during which both nations applied considerable pressure on the Jewish state.
Defense Minister Director-General Udi Shani is set to submit his final recommendation on the matter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Within the parameters of the preliminary deal, Israel will pay $1 billion for 30 Italian M-346 military training jets, providing a long-awaited upgrade to what is generally viewed as the most advanced air force in the Middle East.
The deal has only initial approval and needs official authorization from Barak, the government and the Knesset. Defense officials say they expect the agreement to win authorization, and the planes to be delivered in 2014.
The M-346, made by the Italian company Alenia Aermacchi and designed for low-cost flights, will replace American Skyhawks, with which the Israel Air Force has trained for 40 years. As early as 2008, the IAF announced it needed to replace the antiquated jets. Italy will reciprocate the Israeli purchase by buying $1 billion in Israeli defense equipment, the Defense Ministry said.
Shani said the offsetting deal enabled Israel to make the large purchase in a “harsh budgetary reality.”
South Korea had hoped to sell its T-50 aircraft to Israel and had issued a $1.6 billion counter-offer, which included buying the expensive Iron Dome anti-rocket system, defense officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. While Israel was mulling its options, South Korea complained about a lack of transparency in the deal.
In a letter to South Korea, Shani wrote that “after close analysis of both the proposals, and at the conclusion of a long and comprehensive review process, it was decided that the Italian proposal was the most efficient choice for Israel’s Ministry of Defense.”
He cited the suitability of the jets to the “direct needs” of the IAF, the cost and the “significant offset conditions.”
Alenia Aermacchi noted that the aircraft had just been delivered to the Italian Air Force and soon would also be utilized by Singapore’s military.
“We would like to thank the Israeli Ministry of Defense for their trust in and their choice of the M-346, a fact that confirms the product’s excellence,” Alenia Aermacchi’s CEO Giuseppe Giordo said in a statement.
Israeli possesses a sophisticated air force of U.S.-made F-15 and F-16 warplanes, and its pilots spend considerable time on training flights. Even reservists must spend one day a week in the air. Officials said the new planes would provide Israel with a critical advantage in maintaining its military edge.
Military analyst Yiftach Shapir of the Institute for National Security Studies said the new planes would provide an important boost, noting that the aging Skyhawks were “long past their life service.”
“Training will be better, pilots will be better prepared for the combat aircraft they will be flying, and everything will be cheaper because the aging aircraft really needed a lot of maintenance,” he said.
The M-346 fits two pilots and is 11.49 meters (37.7 feet) long, with a wing span of 9.72 meters (31.9 feet). The jet’s height is 4.76 meters (15.6 feet), it can carry a payload of 6.7 tons and reach a distance of 1,890 km (1,174 miles) without refueling.