Mittens or Masters, Blue Magpies or Golden Eagles?

This is an article published in our November 2017 Issue.


As the complexity of fighter aircraft keeps increasing, the need for better training aircraft that can prepare pilots for this higher level of performance are required.

The world’s air forces operate more than 7,500 fixed-wing training aircraft, with a further 600 on order. Of this total, there are 1,852 in the Asia-Pacific region with 250 on order. Over 1,100 fixed-wing military training aircraft are forecast to be delivered in the next ten years, valued at nearly $20 billion.

The most numerous turboprop basic trainer is the Beechcraft T-6A/B/C Texan II, 760 of which are operated by the United States (US) armed Forces. The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) are the only Asia-Pacific customers for the T-6C.

More than 700 Beechcraft T-6 basic trainers are in service with the US Air Force and Navy, only the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and the Republic of China Air Force are the only Asia-Pacific customers for the Harvard II.

Outside the United States, Pilatus of Switzerland dominates the basic trainer market with the PC-9 in service with the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF), and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), while the PC-7 Mk.II, which is still in production, has been delivered to the Royal Brunei Air Force (RBAirF), the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) and the Indian Air Force (IAF). A total of 75 PC-7 Mk.IIs have been delivered to the IAF and in March 2015, India’s defence acquisition council approved an option for 38 additional aircraft as part of the IAF’s requirement for 181 basic trainer aircraft (BTA). However, earlier this year, the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar announced that the IAF had reached Stage II of the BTA programme and that it will procure the Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) HTT-40 basic trainer instead of the further import of foreign-built basic trainer aircraft.

The Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II has been delivered to the Royal Brunei Air Force, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), and the Indian Air Force (IAF) which has a fleet of 75.

The latest turboprop basic trainer from the Pilatus stable is the PC-21 which is in service with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and 49 are being delivered to the RAAF to replace its fleet of PC-9s.

In service with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is taking delivery of 49 Pilatus PC-21s to replace its PC-9s.

Although Brazil’s Embraer Tucano/Super Tucano is the second most successful basic trainer in terms of numbers delivered none have been sold to Asia-Pacific air arms. Number three in the basic trainer league is the Korea Aerospace Industries (KIA) KAI KT-1, 85 of which are operated by the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF), and 14 by the Indonesian Air Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Udara, TNI–AU).

The most numerous advanced jet trainer in service in the Asia-Pacific regions remains the BAE Systems Hawk with more than 100 extant. The RMAF and TNI-AU continue to operate small numbers of 100 Series aircraft, the RAAF is upgrading its 33 Hawk Mk.127s to RAF Hawk T.2 standard under project Air 5438 Phase 1. The IAF has a fleet of 99 Hawk Mk.132s most of which were assembled by Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL). An additional 24 upgraded aircraft with a new dual-redundant mission computer and an embedded virtual training system, are being delivered by HAL called the Hawk-i.

In the basic jet trainer sector, the People’s Republic of China has made inroads to the region with sales of its Hongdu Aviation Industries Group (HAIC) K-8 Karakoram co-developed with Pakistan. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has some 200 JL-8 trainers in service, which are powered by a single 3,792 lb thrust (16.87 kN) Ukrainian Ivchenko Progress AI-25TLK turbofan. The Pakistan-built K-8P, examples of which have been delivered to the Sri Lankan Air Force and the Myanmar Air Force (MAF), have the 3,600 lb thrust (16.01 kN) Honeywell TFE-731-2A-2A turbofan the Lucas Aerospace FADEC. A total of 12 K-8s were delivered to the MAF in 1999 and an additional 60 were ordered in 2010 to be supplied as completely knocked down (CKD) kits for the assembly by MAF technicians. However, none of these have been delivered to date.

China is also breaking into the lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) market with the supersonic HAIC L-15A Falcon that first flew in 2006. The two-seat, twin-engine L-15 features the latest advanced technologies developed by China, such as a three-axis quadruple-redundancy fly-by-wire flight (FBW) control system and an advanced avionics system based on flexible data bus technology, a glass cockpit with two multi-colour head down displays for both the front and rear cockpit, and an additional head-up display (HUD) for the front cockpit, and hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) flight control.

The aircraft features two zero/zero (zero altitude, zero speed) ejection seats in tandem, a single vertical fin, fully movable stabilizer, tricycle landing gear, and one-piece canopy and blended wing-fuselage design. The aerodynamic performance of the aircraft is enhanced by its large leading edge root extensions (LERX) design, that gives a high angle of attack (AoA) of up to 30 degrees.

The L-15 LIFT variant entering service with the PLAAF as the JL-10, is powered by two Ukrainian 9,260 lb (41.1 kN) thrust Ivchenko-Progress afterburning AI-222K-25F turbofans with full authority digital engine control (FADEC) built under licence by China’s Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) Research Institute 608 as the WS15, giving it a maximum speed of Mach 1.4. The L-15 is also the first jet trainer to be fitted with a passive electronically scanned array (PESA) combat radar developed by Research Institute 607.

China’s supersonic Hongdu Aviation Industries Group (HAIC) L-15A Falcon is the export version of the JL-10 lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) entering service with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

A light attack variant, the L-15B variant was launched earlier this year. It features a larger nose that houses indigenous PL-12 PESA multi-function radar. Fitted with a radar warning receiver (RWR) and nine under wing hard points that can carry a maximum payload of 7,716 lb (3,500 kg) including LT-2 laser-guided bombs and a centerline cannon pod.

The HAIC Falcon was designed in collaboration with the Russian Yakovlev Design Bureau which was responsible for the twinjet Yak-130 advanced jet trainer (AJT). Assigned the NATO reporting name, Mitten, the Yak-130 was designed in collaboration with Aermacchi of Italy in the 1990s. In April 2002 the Yak-130 was announced as the winner of the Russian Air Force’s advanced jet trainer competition to replace the Aero L-39. Following a protracted development caused by funding issues rather that the aircraft’s performance, and state trials were completed in December 2009. In December 2011 the Russian MoD and the Irkut Corporation signed a contract to supply 55 Yak-130 AJTs to be delivered by 2015. An additional 30 aircraft were ordered in April 2016.


Aermacchi shared the design and production and modification rights for a westernised variant to be built in Italy with a marketing agreement that assigned NATO customers to Aermacchi, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to Yakovlev while the two variants would compete in the remaining markets.

With an all-swept mid-wing with swept tailplane and fin, the Yak-130 design features large leading edge root extensions (LERX) that were later adopted for the HAIC L-15. With the use of open architecture digital avionics compliant with a 1553 Databus, a full digital glass cockpit, four-channel digital fly-by-wire system (FBWS) and instructor controlled and variable FBWS handling characteristics and embedded simulation. The type also has a head-up display (HUD) and a helmet-mounted-sighting-system (HMSS), with a double GPS/GLONASS receiver updating an inertial reference system (IRS) for highly accurate navigation and precision targeting.

Powered by two 5,512 lb (24.5 kN) thrust Ivchenko-Progress AI-222-25 turbofans, the Yak-130 has a maximum speed of 1,060 km/h (648 mph) and a combat radius of 555 km (345 miles). A weapon load of up to 6,600 lb (3,000 kg) consisting of various guided and un-guided weapons, auxiliary fuel tanks and electronics pods can be carried on nine hard points:

In January 2014, Bangladesh ordered 24 Yak-130s to replace the Bangladesh Air Force’s (BAF) fleets of L-39s and FT-6s as lead-in fighter trainers but the order was later reduced to 16 aircraft. First batch was delivered in September 2015 since when one crashed during a training flight in July 2017. In March 2017, Mikhail Petukhov, deputy director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) confirmed that three Yak-130s, of twelve on order, had been delivered to the Myanmar Air Force (Tatmadaw Lei).

With more than 145 Yak-130s on order, the Russian manufacturer has eclipsed its erstwhile Italian partner Aermacchi, in the marketing of its westernised variant that later became the M-346 Master. Development of the aircraft was transferred to Italy in 1998 to prevent delays resulting from the economic situation in Russia with limited funding from the Italian Ministry of Industry. The first flight of the M-346 prototype took place in July 2004.

Retaining much of the Yak-130’s airframe design, considerable weight reduction was achieved by the increased use of composites, the M-346 had a redesigned landing gear with increased track, and a modified canopy for improved visibility. A more powerful flight control system was fitted, and new software for an expanded flight envelope to 8 g. The air intakes and exhaust were redesigned for the two 6,280 lb (27.9 kN) trust Honeywell F-124-GA-200 twin-shaft turbofan engines with dual-channel FADEC that give the M-346 a maximum level speed of 590 knots (1,095 km/h).

Equipped with two Martin-Baker Mk.16D zero/zero ejection seats, and HOTAS controls, the M-346’s glass cockpit is representative of the latest generation cockpit and is night vision goggle (NVG) compatible. It has three colour LCD multifunctional displays, a HUD and an optional helmet-mounted display.

A key feature of the M-346 is the embedded tactical training system (ETTS) that is capable of emulating various equipment, such as radar, targeting pods, weapons, and EW systems. Additionally, the ETTS can interface with various munitions and other equipment actually carried on the M-346’s nine hard points. However, all this capability comes at a high price which may be responsible for the fact that only 59 M-346s have been ordered to date with the RSAF being the region’s only Master customer.

Another expensive AJT option is the supersonic Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 Golden Eagle with a reported unit cost of $30 million. Originally designed by Samsong Aerospace with assistance from Lockheed Martin as an offset for the F-16 Korean Fighter Programme as the KTX-2, it made its first flight in August 2002. In December 2003 a contract was placed with KAI for the manufacture of 25 lead-in fighter trainers (LIFT) to be delivered to the RoKAF in 2007. The RoKAF have a requirement for 94 T-50s, of which 82 had been ordered by 2008.

With mid-mounted variable camber wings with leading edge LERX, swept fin and tailplane, the T-50 is powered by a single 17,700 lb (78.7 kN) thrust with afterburning General electric F404-GE-102 turbofan equipped with FADEC, giving it a maximum speed of Mach 1.3. With BAE Systems digital FBW flight controls with HOTAS, a BAE Systems wide-angle HUD, the cockpit has two MFD and Honeywell instrumentation displays that include, attitude indicator, electronic altimeter and Mach speed indicator.


Apart from in service with the RoKAF, 16 T-50i have been delivered to the TNI–AU, one of which crashed during an air display in December 2015. The Philippines Air Force (PAF) is taking delivery of 12 LIFT/light attack variant of the Golden Eagle, the F/A-50. Equipped with Elta EL/M-2032The R radar, the two-seat F/A-50 has an internal General Dynamics M197 20 mm three-barrel Gatling-type cannon and has seven hard points capable of carrying up to 10,500 lb (4,758 kg) of weapons.

In 2017 the Royal Thai Air Force (Kong Thap Akat Thai) selected the Golden Eagle to replace its fleet of 40 Aero L-39ZA/ART Albatros in the training and combat roles, with the first four of eight aircraft expected to be delivered by July 2018. The T-50TH will be fully combat capable, being fitted with fire control radar, a MIL-STD-1760 databus and will have provision for the Link 16 data link.

Lockheed Martin is competing in the US Air Force’s T-X competition to replace its fleet of 490 T-38A/C Talons, with a variant of the T-50A designated the TX-1 to be built in the United Sates. Should it win the competition it would be a considerable boost to its sales potential in the Asia-Pacific region.

Taiwan is planning to purchase a new AJT to replace 49 AIDC AT-3 basic jet trainers and 25 Northrop/AIDC F-5E/F fighters that have been acting as lead-in fighter trainers for decades in the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF). AIDC has proposed an AJT based on the two-seat AIDC Indigenous Defence Fighter (IDF) called the XAT-5 Blue Magpie, equipped with reinforced landing gear, increased fuel capacity, a glass cockpit and the same Honeywell F125 turbofan engines. In February 2017 a memorandum of cooperation was signed between the RoCAF and the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) to develop the Blue Magpie. The RoKAF has a requirement for 66 new AJTs for deliveries starting in 2023.

With Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam amongst others, with requirements for new basic and advanced trainers, the choice is wide open but as always, will be subject to funding.

by David Oliver