Wednesday 22 September 2021

Italian Allure - Turkmenistan’s M-346 Combat Jets

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Some 30 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the inventories of many post-Soviet air forces are still very much defined by the Soviet-era aircraft types they inherited. This is especially true for combat aircraft, the expensive price tag of which has dissuaded many nations from acquiring new types to replace older generations currently in service. Instead, proven types such as the MiG-29 and Su-25 undergo overhauls again and again in an attempt to not only keep them flying, but also to keep them relevant in the age of 21st century warfare.
While nations like Belarus and Kazakhstan have attemped to challenge this perception through the acquisition of Yak-130s and Su-30SMs in recent years, large parts of Central Asia have seen a gradual decline in jet operations. Turkmenistan is a notable exception to this rule, having strengthened its air force through the acquisition of new jet aircraft and the upgrade of MiG-29s and Su-25s already in service. One of those aircraft is the Italian M-346, which has so far been ordered by nine air forces worldwide.

In May 2020 the Italian Senate disclosed that Turkmenistan had placed a 293.1 million euros order for four M-346FAs (Fighter Attack) and two M-346FTs (Fighter Trainer) in 2019. [1] The first M-346s destined for Turkmenistan were sighted at the Leonardo facitities in Italy in July 2021 shortly before their delivery to the country. [2] The aircraft sported a total of four inert air-to-air missiles (AAMs) and two fuel tanks, a configuration they would keep during their demonstration flights in Turkmenistan.

The actual armament suite acquired by Turkmenistan for its M-346s remains unknown. Based on the types of weaponry known to have been purchased for the A-29Bs, it is possible that no precision-guided armament has (yet) been acquired for the M-346s. Instead, dumb bombs, air-to-air missiles (AAMs) and external fuel tanks might be the initial standard loadout for Turkmenistan's M-346s. However, owing to their advanced weapon capabilities it seems plausible that guided air-to-ground weaponry will be acquired at some point in the future. These could include Marte Mk2 anti-ship missiles and various types of Turkish or Israeli precision-guided munitions. The supply of Western weapons such as the GBU-12 is also possible, but likely dependant on the willingness of source nations to deliver it.

Shortly after the arrival of the aircraft to Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow took a test flight in one of the M-346s over the Caspian Sea. Although the camouflage pattern worn by the aircraft appears to have been designed specifically with naval operations in mind, most Turkmen Air Force aircraft feature colourful liveries that appear to have little regard for their area of operations. Of course, in a time when radars are the primary means of detecting aircraft, the importance of camouflage patterns has somewhat diminished.

Although the M-346s have yet to show up on satellite imagery, it is expected that the aircraft will either be stationed at Ak-Tepe-Bezmain near the capital Asghabat, at Mary airbase/IAP or Mary-2 airbase, both near the city of Mary. The latter already houses five A-29B Super Tucanos that were also recently acquired by Turkmenistan. The similarly new C-27J NGs are likely to be housed at Ak-Tepe-Bezmain, which is already home to two An-74TK-200s and one An-26. These constitute the air force's only active transport aircraft (although Turkmenistan Airlines operates three Il-76s), and it is possible that the C-27J NGs are set to completely replace the An-26 in its role as a turboprop transport.

With the fall of the Soviet Union now far in the past and a new world with new requirements in plain view, modern Western technology has finally reached the Turkmenistan Air Force through the delivery of M-346s, C-27Js and A-29Bs. More introductions and other surprises undoubtedly await, with Turkmenistan currently believed to be leaning towards the acquistion of new unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) and new attack helicopters to replace its aging inventory of Soviet-era Mi-24P attack helicopters. For these acquistions it will undoubtedly look at Western sources once more, firmly securing the Turkmen Air Force's position as the most modern air arm in the region.