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Aero L-39NG - an icon reborn

31. 7. 2016

After successful sale of its redundant L-159 ALCA trainers to Iraq, Czech company AERO became more market-hungry. Since 2014, it has been working on somehow downgraded and more affordable version of its L-159. It should feature new engine, glass cockpit and full NATO compatibility. Moreover, AERO already sees crowds of customers waiting in line to get their hand on the new L-39NG, which was the name picked for venerable combat trainer. Is it really what they claim it to be, or is it just shot in the dark? This analysis doesn´t aim for comparison of new version of L-39 to current main players on this field, but rather questions its possible success on the market.L-39NG prototype on trials

The L-39 family is the most produced jet trainer aircraft in the world. Total of 2898 airframes in 4 main versions were produced between 1971 and 1997. It has served and still serves in 30 airforces worldwide. In the 1980´s it was developed into L-39MS and in the 1990´s into L-59 and L-159. Those were basically completely new aircraft, sharing only name with its predecessor. However, as the Soviet Union collapsed, the main customer for the perspective aircraft disappeared. Moreover, all economies of the ex- Eastern bloc countries entered difficult times and lost financing for acquirement of new armament. Aero company struggled to offer its top product to various Western-oriented purchasers, with moderate success. We can mention sale of 40 pcs of westernized L-39ZA/ART with Elbit systems equipment to Thailand (delivered 1992-1996); US private company "Air USA" has acquired 5 airframes of L-39MS (still in service); Egypt has ordered 49 pcs of L-59E delivered between 1993-1994 (withdrawn from service) and Tunisia has acquired 12 airframes of L-59T between 1995 and 1996 (still in service).

Iraqi L-159 Alca

Moreover, in order to boost production and renew good name of its aircraft abroad, Czech Air force has ordered itself 72 pcs of completely new and Westernized L-159 Alca. Those are the aircraft, of which 15 pcs were sold to Iraq. US company "Draken International" has acquired 21 airframes, while "Lewis Fighter Fleet LLC" has 3 airframes. Hungary was evaluating the L-159 for some time, but due to financial issues, didn´t purchase any machines. Since the large-scale export of its modernized products has failed, Aero has turned into producing various aircraft and helicopter components in license. This activity proved to be very successful and demanded, and after some years, it brought back Aero its willingness to continue on their "jet trainer" topic. This time, the management took different path and decided to make upgrades of proposed Aero L-39NG, on the basis of existing as well as newly produced airframes. The customer has two options: he can buy kit of new equipment with corresponding prolonging of airframe lifetime or just new western engines.

L-59E

The installation of new, FADEC equipped Williams FJ-44-4M two-spool turbofan engine, with thrust of 16,89 kN is the key feature of L-39NG. This engine was designed from the beginning also for the military application, and has been used by Pilatus, Hawker, Cessna or SAAB. In order to fit inside L-39, it will use simple adapter, with small modifications to its air intake inlets. Compared to older Al-25T turbojet, it will have significantly lower fuel consumption and will be started from the on-board battery, instead of Sapheer 5 APU (auxiliary power unit), which will become redundant and its removal will save some weight. Modernization will also include installation of central filling of fuel tanks. Moreover, the tanks on each wing edge will be removed, while each wing will get integral fuel tank. Even with such modification, the fuel capacity will increase by 400 kg, to final 1450 kg. Each wing will also have 2 pylons for various rocket pods, unguided rockets, air-to air missiles or drop fuel tanks. The fifth pylon will be under the fuselage. This package of abovementioned equipment is basically the lowest option of retrofit kit, that will be available.

Second, more advanced option will include cockpit and fuselage updates. The main feature will be full glass cockpit, corresponding with most current standards and one-piece canopy, hinged to the right side. The change of ergonomics of the cockpit will be presented by HOTAS, raised back seat with new ejection seats featuring 0-0 characteristics and head-up display. The oxygen supply system will be changed to OBOGS, instead of current bottles with air.kokpit-l-39ng.jpg

Those are features, which will undoubtedly turn venerable L-39 into 21. century standard combat jet trainer and extend its service life. But in today´s world and market, there are other factors, which will decide in its favor or decline. This is not the first attempt to significantly upgrade existing L-39 platform. In the 2nd half of 2000´s, Ukraine has proposed new L-39M1 version, based on L-39C. It also  features new engine - Al-25TLSh, with 1 850 kg of thrust, new flight data recorder, BTK-39 on-board training system and sighting and navigating system. While it was widely promoted in its time, it had no foreign customers, except domestic Ukrainian air force. Currently, Ukrainian L-39C is slowly being modified to this standard.

The main difference between those two projects is their aim for final customer. Eventhough both companies propose their aircraft for all existing L-39 users, it is obvious that Ukrainian modification is more oriented towards 3rd  world countries, while Czech modification is oriented towards Western oriented countries. Moreover, Ukrainian proposal is on the basis of L-39C, which is less common in the developing countries, which opted for L-39ZO and L-39ZA instead. This is major advance for Czech L-39NG proposal. However, absence of Aero on those markets and lack of funds, have shifted interest of developing countries to turn to Russia and China instead, while some purchased 2nd hand equipment from Western suppliers. Political orientation plays major part in decision making, thus closing markets for Aero of countries, such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Syria, Uganda or Yemen. Other operators, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam will be likely included in Russian policy of providing credit for acquiring Russian defense industry´s products, thus buying Yak-130 instead.

Thai L-39ZA/ART

Since Aero can not rely on such support from Czech government, sales to Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chad, Congo, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nicaragua and Uganda are highly unlikely, not mentioning possible ban on export of some of L-39´s sensitive equipment. The market for new-generation L-39NG has thus stretched to Algeria, Bulgaria, Czech republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine. The possibility to deliver new aircraft to Algeria, Libya and Ukraine is small, since Algeria is oriented in acquiring Russian equipment in long term; Libya is under UN arms embargo and Ukraine would like to employ its own defense industry (eventhough it´s becoming West-oriented). We have finished with potential 8 countries, that would possibly be interested in buying, upgrading and most importantly paying for such product. Moreover, the possible volume of sales to those countries is not significant, due to crisis in their economies. Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania are struggling to keep even their existing assets in airworthy condition; while Slovakia and Hungary have no plans to acquire new trainers in forthcoming future. Aero managers should know better, thus they started marketing campaign in Latin America, central Asia and Middle East. Indeed, those are the most perspective markets for L-39NG. This can, however prove too much for Aero, since existing agreements, interests and politics are currently in favor of Aero´s competitors. 

 

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