M-346 challenges fifth generation fighters during multinational Falcon Strike 21 exercise

M346 Falcon Strike 21
Italian Air Force T-346A advanced trainer jet.

On June 15, the Italian Air Force dropped the curtain on the multinational exercise Falcon Strike 21 (FS21) after about 10 days of intense air operations.

The FS21 included participants from the United States, Israel, Italy and the United Kingdom and aimed to optimize integration between fourth and fifth generation aircraft and strengthen the interoperability of allied and partner air forces during joint operations.

This year's exercise was hosted by Italy and provided the opportunity for multinational forces to test and improve shared technical and tactical knowledge, while conducting complex air operations in a multinational joint forces environment.

Although the FS21 was mainly focused on the F-35 stealth fighter, it included several other types of aircraft, such as the M-346.

The M-346, deployed by the Italian Air Force, was part of the Red Forces, covering the role of the enemy during aerial combat against the advanced F-35 (all F-35s were assigned to the Blue Forces). During exercises of this type, instructor pilots belonging to the ITAF Flight School at the 61st Wing usually fly the M-346 as Aggressor.

Agile and light fighters are very suitable to cover such roles, the US Navy for example has been using the F-5 as 'bad guy' for decades. Well-known private opposing force supplier Draken International routinely participates in USAF's premier Red Flag exercise in Nellis with its A-4 Skyhawk fleet.

With the introduction of more and more advanced fighters, major air forces/private defense providers are looking to upgrade their fleets with increasingly high-performance Aggressor aircraft in order to provide adequate opposing force.

The M-346 has proved that it can cover this type of task very well. This confirms that it is an excellent light fighter in addition to an advanced trainer jet. Born as a system to train fighter pilots, the M-346 is evolving into the role of fighter. Its manufacturer Leonardo launched the FA (Fighter Attack) variant of the type in 2018 whose characteristics are very similar to those of modern combat aircraft, as also confirmed by the Israeli Air Force.

With defense budgets shrinking, many nations today are looking to light fighters to replace older fleets of Soviet-era aircraft or to offload some work to more expensive 30-ton fourth/fifth generation aircraft.

Although in recent months we have read a lot of inaccurate news about the sales of the M-346, we can confirm that many countries are looking at the platform with a lot of interest and we believe that in the next few years the list of its users will expand.

Written by Matteo Sanzani
Image: Italian Air Force

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