TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- Israel's quest for a new jet trainer for the air force has moved toward South Korea's T-50 after Korea Aerospace Industries said it was joining with Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Israel is buying, to market the supersonic aircraft.
The air force is seeking a replacement for its fleet of Vietnam-era Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, with the T-50 Golden Eagle competing against the M-346 Master built by Alenia Aermacchi of Italy.
The Skyhawks, in service with Israel since 1967, have been used for advanced training before pilots move on to supersonic combat aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Boeing's F-15.
Final selection of the new trainer has been reportedly delayed several times over the last year because of the Defense Ministry's "budgetary constraints."
It's not clear whether the deal will be affected by major cuts in the 2012 defense budget approved by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing government Sunday. Military officials said the cutbacks would mean that one-third of the air force's jet aircraft would be grounded.
But it seems evident that the cuts could impede planned weapons procurement by Israel's armed forces.
That includes the purchase of 20 Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter aircraft in a $2.75 billion deal approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak in August 2010.
The air force ultimately wants 75 of the fifth-generation fighters to maintain Israel's long-held technological edge over its regional adversaries.
The initial order of 25-35 training jets, worth at least $1 billion, will mark the first time in 40 years that the Israeli air force will buy jet aircraft not manufactured in the United States, its main arms supplier.
But The Jerusalem Post reported Monday that the competition for the new trainer has been complicated by political considerations that could in the end decide the issue.
Israel's defense companies, whose focus on exports will undoubtedly be heightened by the expected cuts in defense spending, are seeking major contracts with South Korea worth up to $500 million a year. Those could be jeopardized if the air force chooses the M-346 over the T-50.
Seoul announced in June it had signed a $43 million deal with Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems for 67 Spike NLOS missiles to boost defenses on the Yellow Sea islands of Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong attacked by North Korea in 2010.
South Korea is also showing interest in Rafael's Iron Dome, designed to intercept short-range rockets and which made a successful combat debut against Palestinian rockets earlier this year.
"On the other hand," the Post observed, "Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has personally lobbied Prime Minister Netanyahu about purchasing the Italian aircraft."
But Lockheed's announcement that it was working with KAI to market the T-50, "would make it easier for Israel to use military funds it receives from the U.S. to purchase the aircraft," the Post reported.
It's not clear, under these particular circumstances, whether the U.S. Defense Department would allow Israel to use any of the $3 billion a year it receives in U.S. military aid to acquire the Italian jet.
The Post reported last week that the Rome government was discussing with the Israeli Defense Ministry the possibility of a barter deal with Italy, in which two AWACs aircraft from state-run Israel Aerospace Industries would be exchanged for the M-346.
Defense officials in Tel Aviv say the issue could be decided by the end of the year with an order made in early 2012.
Once the selection has been made IAI and Elbit Systems, a leading maker of military electronic equipment, will establish Tor Ltd. which will handle the purchase and maintenance of the training aircraft, and lease the aircraft to the air force.
The single-engine T-50 is considered to be one of the best training aircraft in the world and by all accounts offers the highest potential performance of the two as it can function as an "F-16 Lite."
A T-50 with a light ground attack capabilities would be an added bonus for the Israelis.
However, the Defense Industry daily observed recently that the performance profile and ordnance-carrying capability of the M-346, similar to the Russian Yak-130, "in a pinch is probably the closest to the Skyhawk's."
The Israeli air force's 200-plus A-4s saw combat in several Middle East wars.