by Adam Gonn
JERUSALEM, Nov. 27 (Xinhua) -- The contest over who will sell the Israeli Air Force its new combat training jets continues to heat up, despite the fact that an official tender isn't expected to be issued until early 2012.
The two competitors are the Italian Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master, and Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50.
A South Korean delegation is expected to visit Israel next month to propose increased cooperation between the two nations and a potential five billion U.S. dollar commercial package by Israeli defense firms should Israel pick T-50, according to the Israeli media.
"Both planes are viewed to be very similar in their capabilities by the Israeli Air Force, but the deal has strong political and economic ramification for Israel," Yaakov Katz, the military correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, told Xinhua on Sunday.
Asaf Agmon of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya said if one tries to judge the planes just by their training capabilities, then there are a lot of similarities between the two aircraft. However, he said that the South Korean candidate stands out in certain significant aspects.
"The Korean plane has the capability to carry some weapon systems and to be more like a fighter plane, which the Italian hasn't," Agmon said.
He also pointed out that the Korean plane has already been flying for four years and "serves efficiently in the Korean Air Force training Korean pilots, while the Italian isn't in the same stage" of development.
Agmon argued that it's very important for the Israeli defense industry and the Israeli economy in general, that whoever wins the project be committed to purchasing blue and white equipment and services in return.
South Korea has already purchased radar systems and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Israeli defense contractors. Also, during a visit earlier this year, a South Korean official from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration expressed interest in the recently-deployed Iron Dome anti-missile system, which was primarily developed by the Israeli defense contractor Rafael- Advanced Defense Systems.
Katz, who has written extensively about the project, argued that if Israel chooses the Italian plane, it would reinforce and strengthen its relationship with Italy, which he deemed a strong country in Europe.
However, he added, if Israel doesn't choose the Korean plane, then Israeli arms makers stand to lose out on significant and attractive deals.
"On the other hand, Israel, which is growing isolated in the international arena, is looking to retain the friends it has and strengthen the relationship it has with others," Katz said.
"And for that reason it would like to keep Italy as a friend, and if Israel doesn't buy the Italian plane that might have implication on its political and diplomatic relationship with Italy," Katz added.
To counter the South Korean offer, which the Italian reportedly weren't able to match, Italy has instead raised the possibility of a trade in which Israel would receive two airborne early warning and control aircraft in exchange for choosing the M-346, the Post reported.
One of the advantage that the T-50 has is that it has been developed in close cooperation with American defense manufacturer Lockheed-Martin, which means that Israel won't have to be concerned that the United States will try to block the deal, or try to get Israel to buy an American alternative, or that the United States might try to influence future South Korean counter- purchases with Israel.
"The partnership with Lockheed-Martin means that Israel would be able to use the Foreign Military Financing (FMF), in other words money that Israel receives from the U.S. that needs to be spent in the U.S.," Katz said.
The FMF is an annual grant that the United States gives to countries around the world, on the condition that the money is used to buy defense equipment or training from American firms.
Israel receives an estimated 2.7 billion U.S. dollars annually, and due to the partnership between KAI and Lockheed-Martin, Israel would hence be able to buy the South Korean planes with the American money.
In the past, a major obstacle for Israeli-South Korean arms sales has been an agreement signed between Israel and Washington that limits the types of weapons and technologies Israel is allowed to sell to other nations.
The agreement was established so that Israel wouldn't sell arms to countries with which the U.S might have a conflict of interest, or to allow Israeli firms to compete with American ones.
South Korea buys an estimated 90 percent of their defense purchases from the United States, and the remainder from Israel and several European countries.
In the end, neither analyst was willing to wager on which plane they thought Israel would choose.