With the possibility of the Philippine government and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) not agreeing to terms for the purchase of the FA-50 looming,1 it is time to take a look at other alternatives for the FA-50 in case the deal really doesn’t push thru. The main rival of the FA-50 / T-50 series in the Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) market is the M-346, hence I wanted to take a look at how it would fare in a head to head comparison with the FA-50.
The M-346 is made by Italy’s “Alenia Aermacchi” company, and the aircraft design is based on the Russian Yakolev Yak-130 Aircraft. It is described as an AJT whose prototype first flew in 2003. None are currently in service although they are scheduled to enter service with the various air forces starting in 2014, with Italy, Singapore and Israel having a combined total order of 57 aircraft as of 2013. This aircraft is officially and optimistically nicknamed, the “Master“.2
The FA-50 is made by the South Korea’s “Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI)”, and is supposedly a combat variant of the T-50 Advanced Trainer, which in turn is a smaller, license-built version of the F-16 Fighter Aircraft. KAI describes the FA-50 as a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), but in reality and for more practical purposes it is more of an improved version of the T-50 best suited as an AJT for more advanced aircraft. The FA-50 first flew in 2011 and will enter South Korean Air Force service starting also in 2014 like the Master. The aircraft’s official name is the “Golden Eagle“, which can also be shortened to just “Geagle“.3
These two aircraft are arguably the most heavily marketed and most visible brand new AJTs in the world right now, with both aircraft having had to compete with each other in various procurement contract competitions. The M-346 has already beaten the T-50 variant for orders in Singapore and Israel, while the T-50 in turn beat the M-346 for orders in Iraq just recently. Procurement contract competitions in Poland and United Arab Emirates with both aircraft included are still ongoing.
For the “Maneuverability” and “Payload and Range” sections, the following considerations were made:
– Weights with 100% internal fuel was used to try to simulate the aircraft going into combat with full internal fuel after dropping their External Fuel Tanks.
– The weights of the armaments were not included as the RATIOS and DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BOTH AIRCRAFT will remain the same if they will be armed with the same type and same number of armaments.
– Fuel density of 0.81 kg/l was used to convert fuel capacity to kilograms
– Data for each aircraft was derived from various websites at 4 5 6 7.
For both aircraft’s maneuvering capability, I am looking at their LIMIT LOAD FACTOR*, WING LOADING* and THRUST TO WEIGHT RATIO.* I would’ve wanted to take a look at more aspects like Stalling Speed, Maximum Alpha, etc., but those data are hard to come by for both aircraft. Hence, these should suffice for now. Remember that a lower Wing Loading means the aircraft can turn tighter and vice-versa, and a higher Thrust-to-Weight Ratio means the aircraft can go faster going straight up or straight down and vice-versa.
– LIMIT LOAD FACTOR: Equal for both aircraft
– WING LOADING: 19% advantage for the Master over the Geagle
– THRUST TO WEIGHT RATIO: 18% advantage for the Geagle over the Master
+++ Both aircraft are roughly equal in terms of overall maneuverability as while the Master can turn tighter than the Geagle in the horizontal plane, the Geagle is superior than the Master in the vertical plane by around the same amount.
– INTFF: Equal for both aircraft
– PAYLOAD: Favors the Geagle again as it can carry 23% (680 kg) more load than the Master
+++ Favors the Geagle as it can carry more load than the Master over the same distance
‘Air Combat-related Avionics and Weapons’
Here I am comparing the capability of both aircrafts in terms of Within Visual Range (WVR) and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air combat thru their Avionics and Weapons available to them. Just some notes, though:
– The Geagle’s Radar Cross-Section (RCS) is only ASSUMED to be 80% that of the F-16 as no reliable data is available for it, and that the Geagle is about 80% the size of the F-16.
– No data for the RCS of the Master is available, data is purely speculative by virtue of its relatively small size and shape.
– RCS data are for “clean” aircraft, with no armaments or fuel tanks
– WVR COMBAT: Equal because even though the Master has a Helmet Mounted Sight, it cannot fully take advantage of it in WVR combat without the use of High Off Boresight Missiles.
– BVR COMBAT: Although both do not have BVR missiles, the Geagle at least has a radar that enable it to detect the track the Master on its own from afar, something which the Master cannot do since it doesn’t have a radar.
+++ The Geagle have the overall advantage in air combat as its radar will give it a first look, first shot capability over the Master.
+++ Not in the list above is the fact that the Master does NOT have an internal gun, while the Geagle has an internal three-barreled version of the M61 20 mm Vulcan Gatling Gun designated as A-50. The Master of course can carry a Gun Pod, but that means taking away allocation of one Pylon for other weapons or External Fuel Tank (EFT), and also less weight allocated for other weapons or EFTs.
‘Multi-Mode Radar Capability’
I found Alenia’s brochure7 to be a bit funny because they insist on putting a lot of other positive stuff about the M-346, a lot more than usual even for a military brochure. I get the impression that they are like people shouting, “Look here, look here!!! Don’t look at the fact that this plane doesn’t have a radar!!!” The Geagle’s EL/M-2032 Radar may have a relatively low air to air detection range, but at least it has a radar, and the promise of integrating more capable weapons like BVR missiles will be faster and easier later on.
Radar also allows for more accurate hitting of ground or surface targets using conventional or non-guided munitions as it is the most accurate and reliable way to determine the distance of the aircraft to the target, allowing for more accurate computation of where the aim should be so the bomb/cannon will hit the target correctly.
Alenia does insist that there is provision for a Multi-Mode Radar (MMR) for the Master, but fitting one will mean more cost and more time eaten away due to qualification and certification for that radar. The Master’s lack of an MMR can be an advantage for it as an AJT because for one, it means less cost for the overall aircraft. Another is that it means less system and parts to breakdown since there is no radar to maintain, hence also lowering the maintenance cost. However, it does limit the aircraft’s effectiveness in its secondary role as a combat aircraft.
Another difference between the two aircraft is SPEED. The Master’s two engines does not have afterburners, and it is mainly a transonic aircraft, able to reach supersonic speeds only at higher altitudes where air resistance is lower and only when it is in a slight dive.8 The Geagle, on the other hand, has a full afterburning engine enabling it to reach much higher speeds at most (if not all rated) altitudes, and is a true supersonic aircraft. The Geagle’s maximum speed is 1,770 kph at 3,000 m, while the Master can only reach up to 1,270 kph at the 14,000 m (computed based on rated maximum speed of Mach 1.2).9
Speed is important in air combat, enabling the Geagle to engage and disengage at will in any dogfight against the Master and match up better with other aircraft. But it is also important for weapons release, as the launching aircraft imparts its speed to its missiles during launch, enabling the missiles to travel further. The AGM-65 Maverick Missile, for example, requires the launching aircraft to be flying at a speed of Mach 1.2 or 1,470 kph to reach its maximum range,10 something which the Master may only barely be able to do with weapons load as it is at the maximum limit of its rated speed.
The M-346 Master can turn tighter horizontally than the Geagle, but the Geagle is faster, has the advantage in the vertical plane, can carry more load and has better combat capability with its multi-mode radar and internal gun. The Master I imagine would be the better dedicated AJT, but clearly the Geagle is the better combat aircraft.
The air forces of Italy, Singapore and Israel which adopted the M-346 probably don’t mind as they have a lot of other aircraft for combat and will use the M-346 purely as an AJT. Unfortunately, we do not have such luxury as we only have a few aircraft and therefore would be more inclined to use these AJTs also for limited combat missions.
There aren’t that many brand new AJTs now in the market, after the Geagle and the Master there is the BAE Hawk and L159, but both aircraft have their own issues as well, like the fact that both are limited only to subsonic speeds. Among the these four aircraft, the Geagle is the most capable and closest to a combat aircraft, hence not getting the Geagle will mean even less capability for our air force’s already low capability to defend our airspace. But it is something we may not have a choice with in the end …
- LIMIT LOAD FACTOR = is the maximum amount of stress load on its structure an aircraft is rated for, and is expressed in number of “G”. The “stress load” refers to the ratio of the Lift of an aircraft to its weight.
WING LOADING = is the amount of weight the wing supports during flight, and is expressed in weight per area, or in the metric system, kg/m^2. This is computed by: (Wing Area divided by Weight).
THRUST TO WEIGHT RATIO = means how much power the aircraft has compared to its weight, and is expressed by a simple number. This is computed by: (The maximum thrust of the aircraft’s engine divided by weight).
INTERNAL FUEL FRACTION = is the weight of the internal fuel the aircraft compared to its maximum take-off weight, and is expressed by a simple number. Formula used is: (Maximum internal fuel capacity divided by maximum take off weight). https://web.archive.org/web/20141003050021/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_fraction
DND: No consensus yet on P18.9-B fighter jets’ purchase,
Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master,
KAI T-50 Golden Eagle,
FA-50 Specifications and Features,
Army and Weapons – Deadly KAI T-50 Golden Eagle,
(https://web.archive.org/web/20140508223857/http://www.aleniaaermacchi.it/en-US/Media/Lists/ProductBrochures-Brochures/M-346.pdf) ↩ ↩
Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346 masters supersonic transition,
AGM-65 Maverick@ F-16.net,