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Poland’s New Advanced Jet Trainer: M-346 Wins

M-346 verification flight

M-346 trials
(click to view full)

Feb 27/14: Contract. Alenia Aermacchi announces a EUR 280 million contract from Poland for 8 trainers, logistic support, a training programme for pilots and engineers and a ground-based training system with dedicated classrooms and educational materials.

The contract brings the total number of global M-346 sales to 56. Sources: Finmeccanica, “Alenia Aermacchi signs a EUR 280 million contract with Poland for eight M-346”.

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Polish F-16C(click to view full) Poland is looking for at least 16 Lead-in Fighter Trainer (LIFT) aircraft to replace its aged fleet of over 100 PZL Mielec TS-11 Iskra trainer jets. The Iskras were initially going to be retired by 2009, but the tender’s submission date moved all the way back to October 2010, and […]

Polish F-16C
(click to view full)

Poland is looking for at least 16 Lead-in Fighter Trainer (LIFT) aircraft to replace its aged fleet of over 100 PZL Mielec TS-11 Iskra trainer jets. The Iskras were initially going to be retired by 2009, but the tender’s submission date moved all the way back to October 2010, and the new trainer jets aren’t expected until at least 2013.

The big question was which trainer jets they would be. Right now, Polish pilots mostly train in the USA on supersonic T-38 Talons and USAF F-16s, but that contract expires in 2015. There are a number of competitors, and the Polish RFP v1.0 placed a justifiable but surprising focus on combat capability. That affected the competition – and eventually, appears to have killed it. The competition has been revived, albeit with sloppy management, and accepted 3 bids. In the end, however, there was just 1 contestant…

Poland’s Fighters, & LIFT Competitors

Orlik TC-II

PZL-130 Orlik TC-II
(click to view full)

Poland’s air force flies 35 upgraded Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, which are expected to remain in service until 2025, and 48 F-16 C/D Block 52 Falcon fighters bought in 2003. Another 45 swing-wing Sukhoi SU-22M “Fitter-J” strike aircraft are scheduled for retirement in 2016. That makes SU-22 compatibility irrelevant to the future trainer competition, but it does create a much smaller air force if their numbers and capabilities aren’t replaced.

The LIFT jets would be the bridge to Poland’s front-line fighters, after pilots train on its 28 modernized PZL-130 Orlik TC-II basic and intermediate turboprop trainers. The RFP also indicates that the new jets will have secondary duties of air policing and light attack, which will help offset the loss of the SU-22s. That requirement was downgraded in the v2.0 proposal, and Poland has since begun leaning toward UAVs for the close support role – a plus in “small wars,” but a vulnerability in conflicts against more sophisticated opponents.



(click to view full)

Alenia’s M346 Master (Winner). This aircraft is mostly sub-sonic, but has limited low-supersonic capability under the right circumstances. M346s have become a consistent contender in advanced trainer competitions. They are the outgrowth of a joint program with Russia that also produced the very similar Yak-130, which is Russia’s next generation trainer and light attack aircraft. Unlike the Yak-130, however, the M346 is only a jet trainer; its light attack version is “under development.”

The M-346 currently has 3 customers: Italy and Singapore are using it, and Israel has ordered it. The United Arab Emirates selected it as their next trainer, though negotiations have been stalled for year now. Poland picked it, despite its lack of multi-role capability, because it was the only bid that came in within Poland’s budget.

Finnish Hawk

Finnish Hawk Mk.51
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BAE Systems Hawk. The sub-sonic Hawk is the most popular western-built jet trainer in the world, and new variants remain in production. NATO doctrine has long marked Hawks as secondary air patrol assets in times of conflict, and the type can be armed with a variety of weapons. Even so, BAE pulled its Hawk LIFT from the v1.0 competition. A change in the v2.0 RFP led to a Hawk LIFT Mk.128/T2 submission, but new Hawks were rejected after the bid came in over budget.

Poland was reportedly examining proposals to buy some of Finland’s Hawk trainers, but the trainer competition dragged, and the FiAF’s 49 Hawk available Mk.51 trainers are expected to reach the end of their lifespans around 2017-2019. Polish officials believed the Finnish Hawks might be made to last until 2025 – but that would still mean just 10 or so years of service, at higher maintenance costs. Another 18 Finnish Hawk Mk.66s were bought from Switzerland and then upgraded beginning in 2010, but those aren’t for sale.

T-50 Underside

T-50, 3-view
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T-50 Golden Eagle from Korea Aerospace & Lockheed Martin. At first glance, this competitor appeared to have all the advantages. It’s a fully supersonic trainer like the T-38, could be fitted in ways that would make it a cheap but effective reserve fighter force in times of need, offers the prospect of improving relations with a growing Asian economy, and is backed by the same American firm that sold Poland its F-16s.

Media reports suggested that the Lockheed Martin tie could also be the T-50s big weakness. The firm’s implementation of the F-16 sale’s industrial economic offset commitments has reportedly come in for criticism. International setbacks in the UAE and Singapore hurt the type, but a win in Indonesia and a dual-role buy from Iraq have solidified its competitive position. The T-50 remains a strong contender for any country that wants swing-role capability, but its price tag exceeded Poland’s budget.

Did Not Bid

L-159A on top, L-159T below

L-159T and L-159A
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Aero Vodochody’s L-159 (bowed out). The sub-sonic L-159s are capable aircraft, fully westernized and NATO-compatible. They were designed from the outset as combat aircraft, and can be fitted with targeting pods and Paveway laser-guided bombs, AIM-9L/M Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and the usual assortment of guns, rockets, and conventional bombs. They can operate from austere bases if needed, and are easy to maintain.

The L-159 was offered in round 1, and Aero Vodochody was prepared to bid again in round 2,. The Czech Republic had even said that they’d be willing to offer Poland the use of CzAF trainers as an interim step. Gives the state of Poland’s TS-11 fleet, and the Czech Republic’s proximity, it seemed like a compelling offer. The problem was a badly written tender that created far too much financial risk and uncertainty, forcing Aero to drop out of the competition.

Russia’s Yak-130 is an obvious non-contender in this race, given Russia’s history in Poland.

Contracts & Key Events


M-346 verification flight

M-346 trials
(click to view full)

Feb 27/14: Contract. Alenia Aermacchi announces a EUR 280 million contract from Poland for 8 trainers, logistic support, a training programme for pilots and engineers and a ground-based training system with dedicated classrooms and educational materials.

The contract brings the total number of global M-346 sales to 56. Sources: Finmeccanica, “Alenia Aermacchi signs a EUR 280 million contract with Poland for eight M-346”.

Contract: 8 jets + support

Feb 13/14: Qualified. An Italian Air Force M-346 passes all verification tests at 41 Aviation School Base in Deblin by Feb 5/13. That leads Poland’s MON to declare that they will accept Alenia Aermacchi’s contract offer. The formal signing will happen soon. Source: Polish MON, “M-346 Master: oferta na AJT wybrana”.

Feb 13/14: Su-22s. The Polish government has decided to keep its 2 squadrons of SU-22M4 fighters and SU-22UM3K trainers in service. That’s is a quick about-face from statements as recently as October 2013. Even so, the only certainly at this point is that the fighters’ home base at Swindin will be modernized. The jets will stay on until 2024, instead of retiring in 2015, but only 18 of 32 jets will be kept.

The MON came to this conclusion after picking a trainer with no secondary combat capability, and deciding that UAVs weren’t a realistic alternative. Poland’s UAV purchase options ranged from slim to nil, especially if they wanted UCAVs that could survive medium-threat scenarios. Any move toward UCAVs would also require an involved and expensive set of upgrades to command and satellite capabilities, which wouldn’t wholly overlap Poland’s ballistic missile defense plans. Poland can revisit their succession plans in a few years, when more UAV options may be available, or M-346 upgrades may offer a partial solution of their own.

The SU-22 fighters have never been upgraded since their delivery in the 1980s, and any substantial extension will force upgrades alongside a refurbishment program. Military Aviation Plant No. 2 in Bydgoszcz, Poland will need to gear up for that, and they’ll also have to address a shortage of compatible weapons. Sources: Dziennik Zbrojny, “The strategic decision – Su-22 will remain in service” and follow-on “18 Polish Su-22 aircrafts remain in service for the next 10 years” | Dziennik Zbrojny, “Su-22, czyli niekonczaca sie opowiesc” [fleet background, in Polish].

Feb 10/14: UAVs. IAI went too far in disputing Poland’s preference for its Israeli rival Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 UAV. How far? So far that the resulting controversies forced Poland’s Deputy Minister of Defence to resign, and damaged diplomatic relations between Israel and Poland. Israel’s Ministry of Defense was very unamused, and reacted by barring both firms from exporting UAVs to Poland. Israel’s Aeronautics DS, which has already exported Orbiter mini-UAV systems to Poland, should be thrilled. Except that they had their own contract for Aerostar UAVs canceled in 2012, with damages sought.

The USA won’t let allies beyond Britain arm their MQ-9 Reaper or MQ-1 Predator UAVs, so the loss of all Israeli options mean that Poland is essentially prevented from fielding armed UAVs right now to replace their Su-22s (q.v. Aug 17/12). Since the M-346 can’t perform any SU-22M combat missions, Poland is out of options. If they really want the Hermes 450 for other uses, though, they could probably circumvent Israel’s ban by ordering the derivative but unarmed Watchkeeper MK450 system from Thales in Britain. Sources: Globes, “Defense Ministry nixes UAV sale to Poland” | Ha’aretz, “Polish official accused of illicitly favoring Israel-made drones” [July 2013] | sUAS News, “Polish MoD Cancels Contract with Israeli UAV Supplier” [October 2012].

2011 – 2013

Poland cancels RFP, eventually issues another; M-346 picked as the only offer within Poland’s set budget; Aero (L-159) bowed out, citing serious RFP v2 deficiencies.

M-346 AJT

M-346 trainer
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Dec 20/13: M-346 picked. Poland announced that it has picked the M-346 as its next jet trainer. The package includes 8 planes + 4 options, along with simulators and other training systems, spares, and technical support. It would appear that the cost of the other 2 offers disqualified them, even though the M-346 is the only entry that offers no light attack capability. In the words of the MON:

“Oferty pozostalych dwoch wykonawcow odrzucono z powodu ich niezgodnosci z wymaganiami zamawiajacego okreslonymi w Specyfikacji Istotnych Warunkow Zamowienia (SIWZ).”

Translation: we disqualified the other 2 tenders because they didn’t comply with the terms of the RFP. They can appeal the decision before Jan 2/14, if they wish. Meanwhile, Poland will be conducting additional tests before the selection is finalized. Sources: Polish MON, “Zakonczenie etapu postepowania na AJT”.

M-346 picked

Nov 20/13: The bids are in. Poland opens the tenders for their AJT competition, and reveals the amounts of the bids. Only Alenia Aermacchi fell within the PZL 1.2 billion ($387.5 million) budgeted, but the contract also considers lifetime operating costs and performance. In descending order…

– Lockheed Martin UK (T-50): PZL 1,802,757,431 / $582.16 million
– BAE Systems (Hawk Mk.128): PZL 1,754,006,167 / $566.42 million
– Alenia Aermacchi (M-346): PZL 1,167,754,500 / $377.1 million

As expected (q.v. June 10/13) Czech firm Aero Vodochody didn’t bid. Sources: Polish MON, “AJT – zlozenie ofert”.

Oct 22/13: status update. President Bronislaw Komorowski meets his counterpart Park Geun-hye in Seoul, where she pitches him about the strengths of the T-50 offering, as well as Korea’s license-build U209/U214 submarines.

A few days earlier Defense News had reported that Alenia Aermacchi, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin/KAI were still in the race. A contract award is planned for Q1 2014. The order would lock in 8 aircraft, with an option for an additional 4. Sources: Korean press reports | Polish Army’s Polska Zbrojna.

Sept 3/13: M-346. Alenia announces industrial agreements with Polish companies, while touting the M-346’s Helmet Mounted Display as a unique option in this competition. That matters, because HMDs have become an inseparable part of the way modern pilots fly and fight. The F-35 has taken the next step, and (unwisely) chosen to forgo the Head Up Display in favor of an HMD.

With respect to industrial cooperation, Alenia is partnered with WZL companies for MRO and support, including the establishment of a supporting logistics center, plus an option to extend collaboration to some component production. Finmeccanica’s own local subsidiary PZL Swidnik will definitely produce composite parts for the M-346 if Poland picks that plane, and would also receive some component orders for “new commercial aircraft”. Sources: Alenia Aermacchi, Sept 3/13 releases.

June 18/13: T-50. Lockheed Martin announces that Lockheed Martin UK has joined the effort in Poland, bidding to create a new state-of-the-art Integrated Aircrew Training Systems (IATS) center in Deblin, Poland. Their proposal is based on some of the same approaches they use for Britain’s Ascent Flight Training program. The firm touts the potential for a T-50 equipped IATS in Deblin to become a regional hub for local air forces, which would generate reimbursements from nearby governments.

The firm is paired with WZL 2 Bydgoszcz, who will be responsible for T-50 maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), and already undertakes MRO work for Poland’s F-16C/Ds. Lockheed Martin.

June 10/13: No L-159s. Aero Vodochody publicly drops out of the Polish competition. The reasons are simple: Poland was changing specifications, and demanded a bank guarantee of over CZK 180 million (about $9.4 million) without clearly saying what would cause forfeiture, and wasn’t responding to their questions. Aero adds that:

“Terms of the tender documents were not sufficiently specified, the tender specification was ambiguous and contained contradictory information, even errors, which the authority admitted [but did not fix]…. The tender documentation was by the Polish party continuously changed, the latest changes came shortly before bids submission [on June 7/13] and some of them were not delivered in writing by the closing date for tender bidding.”

If true, “unprofessional” would be a fair term for Poland’s handling of their competition.

L-159 drops out

May 15/13: L-159. After a top-level meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas announces that a series of Czech government ministries had teamed up to make a comprehensive offer of Aero’s L-159 to Poland, for its trainer and light attack tender. The L-159 would be new to the competition, which is currently on its 2nd go-round. Necas added that:

“This [potential sale] enjoys the full support of the Czech government; we are prepared to provide even the planes the military of the Czech Republic owns for training…”

That could be very useful, given the state of Poland’s TS-11 trainers, and the Czech Republic is certainly a convenient location. Prague Post.

May 13/13: RFP 2.0. Poland’s 2nd tender is reportedly released. The deadline is incredibly short: June 7/13. Source.

Grzegorz Jereczek: Polish SU-22Ms

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Aug 17/12: UAVs. Poland’s swing-wing SU-22M fleet could be replaced by up to 30 UAVs, according to Deputy Minister of Defense for military procurement Waldemar Skrzypczak. About 45 of the Soviet-era ground attack fighters remain operational (38 + 7 trainers), flying in 3 squadrons, but they’ll be difficult to keep in service beyond 2018. The v1.0 jet trainer competition had been intended to replace some of their role, but the v2.0 tender reduced that requirement (q.v. Oct 28/11 entry). Poland had also reportedly discussed adding another squadron of F-16s to their 48-plane fleet, but decided against it.

Trainers with some dual-role capability, plus armed UAVs as a supplement, could provide much-needed close support in the field, while working to mitigate the risks that destroyed the v1.0 trainer competition. Armed UAVs would be a big help to Poland’s deployed soldiers, who have been participating in a number of NATO and UN missions. On the other hand, Poland needs to keep a wary eye on Russia, and only the most advanced UAVs would have any sort of half-life against sophisticated air defenses.

The new UAVs are slated for stationing at the same airbase in Swidwin, but the 2018 time frame limits Poland’s choices. Experience has shown that the USA is unlikely to sell jet-powered Predator-C, X-47B UCAS-D, or Boeing X-45 Phantom Ray UCAVs. The European nEUROn jet-powered UCAV program is unlikely to be operational in time, unless Poland joins and invests to push it in that direction. Unless BAE and Dassault make a real push with their Mantis/Telemos as part of an emerging European MALE drone project, that leaves the USA’s GA-ASI MQ-9 Reaper and its superior weapon/payload capability, vs. the Israeli duo of IAI’s Heron TP and Elbit’s Hermes 900. The Israelis have reportedly armed some Herons, but the Hermes 900 is a new model with no reports of weaponization. Defense News | Defense Update.

Oct 28/11: Poland steps back from its existing RFP, and says it will re-do the competition. They seem to have been surprised at the cost of meeting their previous specifications, and will opt for a trainer with lower combat capabilities in the next round. That means the new jets won’t really be able to replace their SU-22s, but it also means that, in the words of deputy defense minister Marcin Idzik, Poland won’t “be the sole country to acquire such an [aircraft as we had requested].” The new RFP is expected in spring 2012. Defense News.

Competition halted

June 14/11: Hawk. BAE pulls its Hawk LIFT aircraft from the competition. BAE VP for Central and Eastern Europe, Steve Mead, told Reuters UK:

“We have offered a trainer with combat capabilities, while Poland’s defense ministry in the end went for combat first, and training second.”

That is an unfair description. It would be more accurate to say that Poland didn’t see a distinction, and wanted a fully combat-capable trainer. As many defense budgets come under more pressure, and fast-growing economies look to bulk up their capabilities quickly, that could become a wider trend.

June 10/11: Poland LIFT RFP deadline of July 29/11 is approaching, triggering a Flight International report. The goal is to sign a deal by early 2012, and as the Sept 2/10 entry notes, the requirements are extensive. They include a combat radar, delivery of laser and GPS-guided weapons, and air defense capability.

Those requirements could be a problem for contenders like the M-346, and Patria’s used Finnish Hawk Mk.51s. BAE Systems, competing with a more advanced Hawk variant, has integrated radar and Paveway capabilities into some of its Hawk family, while South Korea’s TA-50 and the Czech L-159 already have these characteristics built in. On the other hand, reports say that the first 8 planes can be training only, allowing all contending firms to hit the 2014 target date for deliveries to begin. Only the 2nd batch of 8, delivered from 2016 on, need to have full training and combat capabilities.

2006 – 2010

Can the TS-11 be modernized?; RFP issued for 16 planes.

Korea Aero's T-50

Polish TS-11
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Sept 6-8/10: M-346. Poland’s 18th International Defence Industry Exhibition MSPO is held in Kielce. Alenia brings the M-346 to Poland for the 3rd time, and its announcements include some interesting tidbits.

The first is a tacit admission that the M346 is currently only a jet trainer: “The development of the light attack version is already under way to meet specific requirements of individual customer Air Forces.” That’s a reference to a United Arab Emirates requirement, but the UAE isn’t an M346 customer yet.

The second point of interest is their confirmation that “The M-346 has also been selected by the Republic of Singapore for its Fighter Wings Course (FWC) requirement, which aims to replace its current advanced trainers fleet.” There is no contract yet, but its status as Singapore’s preferred bidder is a sharp blow to Korea’s KAI. A contract was, in fact, signed at a later date – read “Finmeccanica’s M-346 AJT: Who’s the Master Now?” for complete coverage.

Sept 2/10: Poland’s Ministry of Defense (MON) issues its jet trainer RFP for 16 planes, plus support, related training systems like simulators; and initial training for 6 instructors, 6 pilots, and 50 ground crew. 1.45 billion zlotys (about $467 million) has been budgeted. Initial proposals are due Oct 4/10, and bids that meet the RFP’s conditions will move on to the technical negotiation stage. The next stage, once a security payment has been lodged, will be the “best and final” offer, followed by either an electronic auction for multiple bidders, or direct negotiations if there’s only one. The first 2 trainers would be due by December 2013, with all deliveries done by the end of 2015.

Closer investigation of the RFP’s requirements shows that none of the existing competitors can meet of of its requirements, but MON undersecretary of state Marcin Idzik gave an unusual response to Flight International, stating that the requirements were so far-reaching in order to give more companies the ability to bid. That can only be true if almost all of the requirements are negotiable, or if they work on a “most points” system.

Requirements like fly-by-wire are normal for modern trainers, to duplicate the fighters they lead to. On the other hand, Poland’s requirements certainly seem to indicate interest in a secondary fighter capability, including 2,000 pounds of ordnance to include GPS/laser-guided bombs and targeting pods, an internal 20mm cannon, electronic countermeasures and decoys for operations in threat environments, supersonic performance, an in-flight refueling probe, Link 16 datalink, and an AESA radar. Polish MON RP [in Polish] | Defense News | DefenseTalk re: BAE Systems | Defense Update | Flight International.

RFP issued

June 19/10: M-346. The Polish Air Force Academy celebrates their 85th anniversary with an air show at Deblin AB. Alenia’s M346 is invited as one of the participants. Alenia Aermacchi.

June 3/10: Defense News reports that the RFP is still several months away, but the Polish Ministry of Defense has reportedly set aside 1.45 billion zlotys (currently $431 million) for the aircraft and related infrastructure, according to Deputy Defense Minister Marcin Idzik.

Jan 14/09: Flight International reports that Poland hopes to acquire 16 lead-in fighter trainers for delivery from the third quarter of 2010, with KAI’s T-50 and Finland’s Hawk 51s as the contenders. The magazine reports that Polish officials believe the Finnish Hawks could be modified to remain in service to 2025. It adds that Poland is waiting on a firm T-50 offer from KAI, and:

“The jet trainer purchase is expected to advance no later than mid-2010 without a formal tender, due to the need to replace PZL Mielec TS-11 Iskras in use at the Polish air force academy in Deblin by 2012.”

Sept 8-11/08: TS-11 modernization? Flight International reports that Poland’s air force institute of technology (ITWL) displayed the technology demonstrator for a modernized PZL Mielec TS-11F Iskra trainer at the International Defence Industry Exhibition (MSPO) in Kielce.

The TS-11F replaces the Polish-made SO-3W engine with a General Electric CJ610 turbojet, strengthens the main wing spars, rebuilds cockpit structure to accommodate Martin Baker Mk 11 ejection seats, then adds modern navigation and communications equipment, plus avionics modifications that include color screen displays and head-up displays.

Oct 2-4/06: M-346. Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346 performs 8 evaluation flights at the Polish Airbase of Deblin in Poland. Alenia.

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