Analysis: Leonardo M-346FA for Polish Air Force

The fighter variant of the proven M-346 is a great option to replace the Su-22 fleet.

Leonardo M-346FA Poland replace Su-22
Leonardo M-346FA Fighter Attack. The Italian company is promoting the combat variant of the 
aircraft in Poland.

The Polish Defense Minister recently said they are planning to start the selection process to introduce a new fighter aircraft to replace the MiG-29 and Su-22 fleets by 2022. The soviet-era aircraft of the Polish Air Force are reaching the end of their service life and their replacement is now become a priority. Poland will first select a replacement for the Su-22M4/UM3K jets by looking at a modern multi-role aircraft capable of feacing threats from the air, land and sea in all weather conditions and being able to operate with modern systems used by NATO forces.

The previous Polish government had decided to extend the operational life of the Su-22s for ten years instead to introduce a new platform so their replacement can no longer be postponed. According to the spokesperson of the Polish Air Force, they need to have two multi-role Squadrons composed of about 40 aircraft each.

During a recent interview, the Head of Leonardo Office in Warsaw, Marco Lupo, encouraged Poland to evaluate the combat variant of the M-346, the M-346FA (Fighter Attack). He underlined that the M-346FA is equipped with Leonardo's multi-mode Grifo radar, can be load with an extensive variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons and is able to perform tasks complementary to those of modern combat fighters as Close Air Support, Slow Movers Intercept and Air Defense.

Lupo also said that the M-346FA can cover all these activities by offering a considerable cost reduction and Leonardo will be ready to deliver the aircraft in a few years. He also added that the jet is fully compatible with the M-346 in the AJT variant already purchased by Poland.

The choice of the M-346FA would allow Poland to reduce the types of aircraft in its fleet as well as the most advanced air forces are doing to cut down on the operational costs. For example, France aims for an "all Rafale fleet" and Germany for an "all Eurofighter fleet". The Polish MoD had already evaluated an "All F-16 fleet" in 2016, but the proposal was not followed due to a reduced budget.

Poland has purchased 12 M-346 jets (plus an option for a further 4) for advanced pilot training.


The FA (Fighter Attack) is a new version of the advanced Leonardo’s M-346 twin-engine trainer, designed and manufactured by Leonardo to meet Air Forces' growing and diversified operational requirements.

The FA is an extremely effective and low-cost tactical solution for the modern battlefield, as it offers Air Forces the greatest effectiveness with all the M-346's AJT (Advanced Jet Trainer) features, including the advanced and pre-operational training capabilities of the basic version. Let's discover why.

In the present operational scenarios, especially in those with a low-medium threat level, often modern and expensive 20/30 tonne class fighter aircraft are used for missions with high operating costs.

Generally, these are Close Air Support (CAS) missions that have to be carried out in urban areas and for battlefield air interdiction, as well as for Homeland Security and Air Policing, tactical reconnaissance and support for the personnel recovery operations in combat areas, where the use of low-cost aircraft equipped with radar, a state-of-the-art designator pod, modern and technologically advanced self-protection systems, a state-of-the-art data link and a critical air-to-air refuelling capability would be enough.

The M-346FA, the low-cost multirole master, was developed from the M-346's AJT advanced training version already in service with the Italian, Israeli, Polish and Singapore Air Forces. In comparison with the latter, the FA version's unique features consist of the upgraded avionics and the two additional wing tip hardpoints (seven in total) in order to have two air-to-air missiles, maintaining at the same time the full dual role capability and the entire extremely advanced Integrated Training System.

The M-346FA will be equipped with a DASS (Defensive Aid Sub System) self-defence system, which includes a Radar Warning Receiver, a Chaff and Flare dispenser as well as a Missile Approach Warning System, with six sensors and a comprehensive 360° protection against any missile threat. The aircraft will be safely able to exchange in real time all the tactical data thanks to a dedicated Tactical Data Link according to the NATO Link 16 or other standards.

A fundamental element of the FA configuration is the multimode GRIFO fire-control radar. The GRIFO-346 is a pulse-doppler multimode radar, produced by Leonardo, specifically optimised for the M-346FA and originates from the Grifo family that, with over 450 units sold worldwide, is a great commercial success due to its reliability and low operational costs. The GRIFO family of radars recently evolved to the Grifo-E version, the electronical scan version of this well proved radar offered by Leonardo.

The M-346FA’s cost per flying hour is 80% lower compared to a heavier and more expensive fighter used for close air support missions.

The maximum speed is remarkable even with external loads, absolutely comparable with operational speed of other front line aircraft, when loads and armament is added, which in fact mostly operate at high subsonic/transonic speed.

The manoeuvrability is excellent thanks also to the 4-channel digital fly-by-wire flight control system and this allows fast manoeuvring during close air combat. The remarkable specific excess power allows the return to base even with full payload, with one engine inoperative (OEI), at an adequate altitude to keep out of the more common range missile threat, guaranteeing a notable survivability capability. The so-called Carefree Handling makes sure that the pilots can focus on the mission, without having to worry about risking to exit the expected flight envelope.

The twin-engine configuration assures a high battlefield survivability and, at the same time, the fuel consumption is kept low thanks to the engine's efficiency, definitely providing a good range, that can be further extended by air refuelling, a capability which is already operational within Italian Air Force. The Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) assures completely autonomous flight operations.

Furthermore, the visibility is excellent and this is very important during low altitude flight. The back-seater pilot can also act as a Weapons System Operator or a more specialised FAC-A (Forward Air Controller – Airborne) role.

The state-of-the-art Human-Machine Interface includes advanced systems to provide the data to the pilots (Multi-Function Display - MFD, Head Up Display and the Helmet Mounted Display - HMD which is already qualified) and HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) type commands, this means being able to control all the aircraft's systems without having to take the hands off of the thrust lever or the control bar.

The M-346FA keeps all the advanced trainer's features, such as the on board Embedded Tactical Training System (ETTS), that simulate, in a Live Virtual Constructive (LVC) environment, the entire suite of sensors and weapons of 346FA and other front line fighters. This is a significant advantage for the pilots that are thus able to effectively train on our platform both for the front line aircraft and the 346FA real missions.

The FA's new operational capabilities add on to those that the M-346 is already able to offer now, as a “Aggressor” and “Companion Trainer” for Combat Ready pilot training, as the Israeli and Italian Air Forces have been able to successfully demonstrate.

The external stores that can be carried amounts to over 2 tons in addition to the 138 gallons in each auxiliary fuel tank. For the strike missions a series of 500 lb class munitions, both guided and unguided will be integrated, including the latest generation precision munitions capable of keeping the collateral damage to a minimum and to increase the number of targets that can be simultaneously hit. The most modern state-of-the-art Laser Designator Pods are available for target designation.

In regards to Homeland Security and Air Policing missions, including the identification of potential threats (even of a terrorist nature) while flying at low altitude (Slow Movers Intercept), such as for example small aircraft or ultralight helicopters, the M-346FA can be equipped with short range infrared guided air-to-air missiles, as well as with a centreline pod that houses a cannon or, upon customer request, an ECM electronic warfare jamming pod.

Suitably configured with a mix of air-to-surface and air-to-air stores, the M-346FA can carry out, without any problem, support missions for complex Personnel Recovery/Combat Search And Rescue operations, namely recovery of personnel even on hostile ground and search and rescue of flight crews shot down in enemy territory.

M-346FA loaded with four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

M-346FA loaded with four IRIS-T missiles.

Written by Matteo Sanzani
Images: Leonardo

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