M-346 - AP - 17022012
An M-346 training plane Photo by AP
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The Defense Ministry has chosen the Italian M-346 as the army's new training plane, in a decision certain to upset South Korea, whose T-50 was the other main contender.

The first of some 30 new planes are expected to arrive in another two years. They will replace the Israel Defense Forces' aging fleet of Skyhawks.

Defense sources said that in return, the Italian government promised to buy about $1 billion worth of goods from Israel's defense industries. Given the defense establishment's "difficult budgetary situation," this was a crucial part of the deal, they said.

The South Koreans have repeatedly charged that the tender was rigged, and that Israel preferred the M-346 mainly due to the close ties between Jerusalem and Italy's Berlusconi government - though Berlusconi and his cabinet were ousted in November. They reiterated these charges during meetings last week with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his ministry's director general, Udi Shani, at an air show in Singapore.

The Defense Ministry insists that the choice was based mainly on the relative capabilities of the planes, including reports by Israeli pilots on dozens of test flights of both models. The Italian plane is also cheaper to operate and maintain. But ministry officials acknowledged that South Korea's much less generous reciprocal purchasing offer played a role as well.

Now, with the decision finally made, the Defense Ministry will turn to its next task: trying to soothe Seoul's ruffled feathers.