The FA-50 Golden Eagle versus the M-346 Master

An M-346 Master. Photo courtesy of DXBSpotter thru Flickr.
An M-346 Master. Photo courtesy of DXBSpotter thru Flickr.

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.

‘Aircraft Backgrounds’
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.

‘Evaluation Notes’
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.

‘Payload and Range’
For Range, I am using INTERNAL FUEL FRACTION (INTFF) as a rough indicator how far each aircraft can go based on the internal fuel available to them.

– 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

An FA-50 Golden Eagle taxiing on the runway. Photo courtesy of Korea Aerospace Industries.
An FA-50 Golden Eagle taxiing on the runway. Photo courtesy of Korea Aerospace Industries.

‘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.

‘Speed Difference’
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.

‘Parting Shot’
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 …

An M-346 in flight. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Macdonalds thru Wikipedia Commons.
An M-346 in flight. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Macdonalds thru Wikipedia Commons.



29 thoughts on “The FA-50 Golden Eagle versus the M-346 Master”

  1. Geagle is clearly superior compared to any other similar aircraft.

    My only ‘misgivings’ with this aircraft is why we still don’t have one until now.

  2. the sub-sonic AJT bae hawk particularly the T2 model is more versatile than the FA-50 and M-346. it can be a fighter, ground attack and naval attack aircraft. it has an 30 mm aden cannon. for short range it carries aim-9 sidewinder (range 25 kms) or the more advance ASRAAM (range 50 kms), various ground attack missiles and the sea eagle sea skimming anti-ship missile with a range of 110kms. in addition it has a fire control computer, multi mode radar, laser range finder, FLIR and night vision capability. since it is designed for naval we can assured this is a sturdy aircraft and agile with a capability of 9g.

    1. The Bae Hawk, for all practical purposes, is an old design and it has already reached its optimal performance, which is below than that of the FA-50

      The FA-50 still has a very high ceiling. We can expect more weapons to be integrated to it in the near future.

      Lets level-up and not settle for outdated planes

      1. the hawk 128 or T2 is an AJT of the RAFand its not an old design. RAF aircrew trained by T2 will move to operational service with tornado, typhoon and the future f-35. which is already integrated not only carry the sidewinder or ASRAAM but also Skyflash, AIM 120 AMRAAM, maverick, sea eagle anti-ship missiles and marconi sting ray homing torpedo.
        so dont say it dont have a radar. the FA-50 has not yet integrated to carry the AIM 120 AMRAAM maybe soon..the T2 capability to carry the sea eagle anti ship missile which has a range more or less 100 kilometers its already an evidence that its radar has a longer range than the fa-50 or any present AJT.
        if we want an immediate jet trainer and combat capable aircraft it is the hawk T-2 not only it can be a fighter its also a naval attack aircraft. and there are more countries seeking for the bae hawk rather than the fa-50 and m-346 or any AJT in the market.

      2. I can’t find any references about the BAE Hawk T2’s avionics and weapons suite, jcenabre. If you have one, kindly share it here, so we can all take a look.

    2. The problem is, the 2-seat variants of the Hawk doesn’t seem to have radar either. Only the Light Combat Aircraft version, the Hawk 200 has radar, hence it seems to be even worst than the M-346.

      The L159 seems to have radar, hence I think it would be a better option than the M-346. But there may be other issues also, like no Fly By Wire technology, etc., hard to determine unless we make another comparison like the one I did above. If the Geagle deal doesn’t push thru, I might just make one …

  3. hi sir merry christmas and advance happy new.thank you for the informative blog which I almost love to visit and read…keep mire blog to post for 2014 and wish you good health

    1. Thanks and Merry Christmas to you too, lem1. I’d like to write more blogs, but news about the AFP Modernization is slowing down, and frankly I am running out of topics that interest me to discuss. I hope news picks up soon, so I can have more blogs in the pipeline …

      1. Sorry but the links you gave were either wrong or dead, jcenabre. However, I was able to find the references to the Hawk on both sites. Here are the corrected links:

        Interesting that the Hawk is, indeed qualified for the AMRAAM. It doesn’t have a radar of its own, but uses data link to link to other radar sources (i.e., AEW, fighter aircraft, land/sea-based radar, etc.) to get targeting information.

        At any rate, one step na lang and we should get the FA-50. Yung pirma na lang ni PNoy for the 52% downpayment ang inaantay at pag nagawa iyon, then FA-50 na nga ang makukuha natin …

  4. hahahah…its ok sir….but still without even topics to come up here I still read it time to time as long as I have a time and this was shared to my friends expect more people here to join here soon..thanks a lot

    1. Thanks for the link, potato. But I don’t think we can immediately conclude that the M346 is unsafe because of these 2 crashes (about 2 years apart). Planes crash all the time, even a T-50 Golden Eagle crashed last year. Some due to Pilot Error, others for mechanical or electrical reason, this is part of aviation …

    1. Its not, as far as I know. A South Korean poster here also confirmed it, saying that Lockheed Martin was asking for some fee to arm the FA-50 with AMRAAM. Apparently LM doesn’t want the FA-50 to compete directly with their F-16s.

      Even if it is certified for the AMRAAM, its radar range might not be enough to optimize the use of the AMRAAM. Most sources will say that the FA-50’s ELM-2032 radar only has a range of 46 km against a target with 5 m^2 Radar Cross Section (RCS), but KAI claims it is 95 km, almost as good as the F-16C’s radar. Not sure about KAI’s claim as they didn’t even bother to change the designation of the ELM-2032 to distinguish it, hence I have my doubts …

    2. Hmm.. Finally I found an official brochure of EL/M-2032′s.
      (Just scrolling down, and click the last picture.)
      The official brochure (written by IAI which is the original developer of EL/M-2032) said,
      EL/M-2032 has 80 NM (mga 150km) Air-to-Air detecton range.
      Of course, it is a maximum range, and FA-50 can’t afford to use whole ability of EL/M-2032′s, so that is why KAI claim it has about 100km 5m^2 RCS.
      (For example, the matter of the SIZE of radorme, it isn’t BIG enough, and maybe there are some more facters that limit it.)
      So, I also strongly claim again, that FA-50 can detect enemy flight at least 100km with 6m^2 RCS, or even 5m^2 RCS.
      And here’s another news reported by KBS, it also reported that FA-50 can detect enemy flight at 100km.
      And as I told you before, the source you have, that EL/M-2032 has 46km detection range with 5m^2 RCS, it is just a proposal for MIG-21.
      It was propose in 1993, and nowadays we live in 2014.
      We can easily assume that there was a technical development, isn’t it?
      Even there wasn’t a technical enhencement, the specifics between MIG-21 and FA-50 is so different.
      Their radome size is not same, they also don’t use same kind of engine, (to supply the power to rader)
      and even though you aren’t agree with these whole facts,
      if you compare the APG 66 or 68 in 1990′s with APG 66 or 68 in 2010′s, there are obvious differences.
      Anyway, wether how we insist, I think the official brochure tell us truth.
      So It can detect 5m^2 RCS at 150km, with ideal condition (which has enough radome and also with ideal system & condition)
      but the FA-50′s has only about 100km because of limitation of condition. (Such as radome and other reasons.)

      1. Thanks, but I have seen that brochure already before. Yes, the FA-50 can use a bigger antenna than the MIG-21. Yes, the FA-50 can probably provide more power to the ELM-2032. Yes, technology has improved since the 1990s. But by how much exactly? Enough for an over 100% improvement in detection range? We just don’t know exactly.

      2. OK. If you saw that brochure before, that’s enough. I don’t want to argue with you..
        I just believe my sources, and you may follow your own sources.
        Maybe my comments were meaningless to you.
        I’ll not talk anymore about the RANGE.

        Basta, alam mo ba ang news sa new frigate acquisition ninyo?

        I heard 2 korean firms are still competing. Right?

        Based on the post,

        IAI didn’t renew the name even they ‘version up’ed EL/M-2032.
        Unlike APG-68(V)-1 to APG-68(V)-9.
        There’s no ‘version rename’ on EL/M-2032.
        As APG-68 was improved, why EL/M-2032 can’t be?

        Plus, as you told, FA-50 can use bigger antenna than MIG-21. (Even power supply)

        (I don’t know how to fix my comment on your blog, so I just add it,)

        Thank you for talking about FA-50 with me.

      4. Thanks for sharing that article. I am using Google Translate to translate the page, and I understand some of it, but not all of it.

        Yes, there is improvement from APG-68v2 to APG-68v7, but the improvement is only 40%, from 100 km to 140 km, which I think is a more realistic figure than over 100% as in the case of the ELM-2032.

        But that article you shared does seem to indicate that some more knowledgeable people there in South Korea are convinced that the detection rate of the ELM-2032 (LG Nex1 version) is 100 km. I also found the detection ranges for the F-15k and other aircraft with AESA radar to be very interesting, I’m still studying it.

  5. He (who wrote the article) assume that APG-68(V)-9 has about 166km ~ 186km detection range. (Of course with 5m^2 RCS)
    Because his source said to him “There are about 33% enhencement than the last APG-68”
    So he assumed that APG-68(V)-9 has 166km (x 33% of (V)-5 version) ~ 186km (x 33% of (V)-7 version.) detection range.
    Finally, it seems about 66% – 86% enhencement from the original one.
    And he also shows because of the differences between 3 models (FA-50, F-16, K-15K) if the rader is same, they don’t act samely.
    Quite useful source, I think.

  6. I am very impressed to read comparations with BAE (very old project) and more to FA50.
    Perhaps also Poland acquired the Master and you don’take in care that the M346 is built in composite materials and in ots own special capabilities there are low mantaining costs and an incredible and customizable avionics which is the best in category.
    Now it is available a new combat version of the Master… Wikipedia is not the book of secrets.
    Israelis are not stupids…

  7. since budget is already constrained i think the future for PHAF to have an MRF is bleak. but govt must consider our external threat. for now we will have 12 FA-50 but since AMRAAM and Anti Ship missiles are not sure to be integrated with it we could only rely, its 20mm, sidewinder, maverick and couple of free falling bombs and rockets.

    with almost the same price i hope govt will seriously consider that instead adding more FA-50 as planned, let have a serious look of BAE Hawk 200. at mach 1.2, with 30mm cannons, sidewinders, maverick, AMRAAM, ASRAAM, and could carry at least 3 Sea Eagle-Anti Ship missiles in one plane..

    having a multi mode radar, laser range finder and FLIR this is much potent than the FA-50. and its capable for mid-air refueling. and it is designated as light multi role fighter.

    instead adding 12 more FA-50s, 12 Hawk 200s could be more of used since it has already BVR and anti ship missiles capability with almost same price of an FA-50 which will cost as more if it will be integrated with AMRAAM and antiship missiles.

    the only negative remarks of the Hawk 200 it is not a FBW. but BAE technicians says it does not negate the capability of the HAWK 200 even without the FBW. it is purely designed as a stand-off aircraft to release its munitions such as BVR and anti ship missiles far distant. if that is the case then let the FA-50 do the dog fighting.

    this is a matter of strategy. but certainly with a constrained budget the Hawk 200 it is much more potent than the FA-50.

    for your information. march 2013 malaysia used 5 Hawks 200 to destroy armed groups of the royal sultanate of sulu in lahad datu, sabah, malaysia. and as we know the armed struggle end abruptly.

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