Simple and to the Point
At a very early point in the jet age it became clear that the modern jet combat aircraft was going to be a very different beast from its forbears of previous eras.
Modern jet fighters were more expensive not only in materials, but also in related infrastucture and the level of training required to prepare air and ground crews to work with them than previous generations of fighter aircraft had been.
With the Cold War becoming a reality on the heels of the of the Second World War and the Korean War highlighting as many shortcomings of early jet fighters as advantages, the idea of inexpensive, lightweight and simple combat jets to supplement the more advanced types being developed started to become attractive in many places.
In many cases, creating such aircraft had been a simple matter of retrofitting an existing jet trainer design to be combat capable or designing a new jet trainer with the potential to carry armament from the start.
In some cases, an entirely new aircraft is designed specific to the purpose. The internationally created AMX, which first flew in 1984, is one such aircraft.
Developed jointly by Brazil and Italy, the AMX was intended to satisfy more than just the military requirements set for it.
The AMX is a hard working aircraft that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Let’s spend some time with it:
The Italian Job
Italy is a nation that has a history of building aircraft that stretches back to the dawn of flight. They are no stranger to making lightweight and simple combat jets and have created some notable examples in the category.
The Aermacchi MB-326 trainer, which first flew in 1957, was one of the most successful training jets of its era and proved easily adaptable to carrying weapons. It was used by at least 16 countries and was well liked and respected as both a trainer and light combat type.
Flying for the first time in 1958, the Fiat G.91 was an attempt to design a dedicated light combat type from the ground up. While the G.91 did not see the export success of the MB-326, it had a respectably long service life with the nations that used it and was an effective aircraft when used in the role it was intended for.
In 1976, Aermacchi’s MB-339 flew for the first time. Derived from the MB-326, the MB-339 shared much in common with its forbear, but was designed to have combat capabilities as a standard feature. Created with lessons learned from the success of the MB-326, the MB-339 is a successful, respected and worthy heir to its ancestral design.
The genesis of the AMX can be found in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Italian air force determined a new aircraft was required to replace the Fiat G.91 and other older aircraft in their inventory.
In response to air force concerns, both Aermacchi and Aeritalia began studies of a new light attack aircraft that would be inexpensive and complementary to the much more advanced and expensive Panavia Tornado strike aircraft that was under development at the same time.
Aeritalia, which had been formed in a 1969 merger of Fiat Aviazione and Aerfer, had inherited the G.91 and based their studies on developing and improving the aircraft. Ultimately, the limitations of upgrading the G.91 design became apparent and the studies were stopped.
Aermacchi approached their studies with a clean sheet design, the MB-340. While the MB-340 never progressed past drawings and models, the final form of the AMX was heavily influenced by the MB-340 design.
In 1977, the Italian air force issued a formal requirement for a fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft and called it AMX. The name was an abreviation created by taking the A from Aeritalia and the M from Aermacchi; the X represented the experimental nature of the aircraft program.
Beyond having the intent to replace the remaining G.91 fleet, the AMX would be expected to take over the close air support and reconnaissance roles being carried out by Italy’s aging fleet of Lockheed F-104G Starfighters at the time.
In 1978, Aeritalia and Aermacchi agreed to develop the AMX jointly. Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, Embraer, had joined the project in 1980 and by 1981 a common set of requirements were established between the countries for what the new aircraft should be able to do. The Brazilian interest was rooted in a need to replace their air force’s aging fleet of MB-326 aircraft in the close support role. Embraer had license built the Brazilian MB-326 fleet and had a good working relationship with Aermacchi.
The development of the aircraft was administered through a joint venture company called AMX International. The headquarters of the company were set up in Rome, Italy.
Into Shape and Into Production
Beyond satisfying the military needs of the countries creating it, there were other goals in mind for the AMX. Primarily, the aircraft was intended to bring back some vitality to the Italian aircraft industry by creating jobs. There was the additional goal of reasserting Italian relevance in the larger scope of European industry through the country’s central role in the AMX project. Italy had a smaller workshare in the Panavia Tornado, but certainly had the lion’s share where the AMX was concerned. Aeritalia and Aermacchi carried 70% of the AMX workshare while Embraer had the remaining 30%.
Although each company had their own final assembly line, there was no redundancy in the production of components for the aircraft. Aeritalia was responsible for the central fuselage, tail fin, rudder, radome and carbon fibre components in the wings and tail. Aermacchi tended to the front and rear fuselage sections while Embraer was tasked with construction of the wings, elevators, air intakes, weapons pylons, landing gear, fuel tanks, reconnaissance pallets and the fitting of components specific to the Brazilian version.
It was also planned that the AMX would have export potential. As such, American made components were avoided where possible to reduce America’s ability to blockade sales of the aircraft to certain customers.
Beyond the basic airframe and the British designed Rolls Royce Spey engine that powered the aircraft, there were many differences between the Brazilian and Italian versions of the aircraft under the skin as far as instrumentation and other avionics related systems were concerned.
The primary differences were dictated by Italy’s membership in NATO and the need for Italian air force aircraft to have systems that were compliant with NATO standards of interoperability between member nations of the group. As there was no such requirement for the Brazilian aircraft, the Brazilians were free to fit their AMX fleet to their own requirements and with some domestically developed systems, such as the MAA-1 Piranha air-to-air missile.
The main external difference between the Brazilian and Italian AMX versions is the type of cannon they carry. The Italian aircraft are equiped with the American designed M61 20 millimetre rotary cannon with six barrels while the Brazilian aircraft carry a pair of French designed 30 Millimetre DEFA cannons with single barrels. Brazil was forced to choose a different cannon when America would not give approval for the export of the M61 cannon to the country.
The first Italian prototype flew in Spring of 1984 while the first Brazilian prototype flew in Autumn of 1985. The first full production standard AMX flew in 1988. The AMX entered Italian air force service in 1988 and Brazilian service in 1989. By the time production ended in 1999, approximately 200 examples of the type had been built.
Due in large part to the collapse of Socialism across Europe at the time the aircraft was entering service, the AMX never saw export success. The fall of Socialist regimes in Europe led to a reduction in military spending in many western European nations and most saw no need for an aircraft like the AMX in light of old Cold War tensions rapidly easing.
The aircraft was briefly considered for purchase by both the Philippines and Venezuela. The Philippines had been considering buying second hand Italian aircraft, but opted for the South Korean designed Kai FA-50 light attack aircraft instead. Venezuela tried to purchase a small fleet of two seat AMX aircraft from Brazil. However, America blocked the purchase due to the degree of American made systems in the aircraft.
In the mid 2000s, both Brazil and Italy instituted extensive upgrade programs for their respective AMX fleets. The upgrades included many of the analog instruments in the cockpit being replaced with digital multi-function displays as well as night vision goggles for the pilots and improvements to the radar.
Perhaps due to a lack of global visibility brought on by a lack of export success, or living in the shadow of a prominent companion piece like the Panavia Tornado, the AMX has never really captured a substantial following among aviation enthusiasts. Not much is written about it relative to other aircraft and its appearances at airshows are relatively rare.
This should not be taken to mean the AMX is unworthy of attention. It’s been a busy and hard working aircraft through the bulk of its service life and has certainly filled any requirement its creators set for it.
While it has never exceeded the expectations of its creators, it most certainly has been the largely self-sufficient and robust light combat aircraft they set out to make. Capable of high subsonic speeds and of being operated and maintained from improvised airfields away from the infrastructure of larger air bases, the AMX has worked as advertized while playing its part in a number of international military operations.
Through the late 1990s, the AMX was part of Italy’s contribution to the NATO led Operation Deny Flight and subsequent IFOR peace keeping activities in Bosnia. They were also involved in the Kosovo War which lasted from February of 1998 to June of 1999.
From 2009 to 2014, a group of Italian AMX aircraft were deployed to Afghanistan to carry out reconnaissance and close support missions as part of the American led Operation Enduring Freedom and the NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The Italian air force also involved their AMX aircraft in the 2011 NATO led military intervention in Libya to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. Working alongside Italian air force Tornado strike aircraft and Italian navy Harrier attack jets, the AMX proved quite capable of not only carrying out attacks on its own, but also using a targeting pod to guide the weapons of other aircraft to their targets.
Beyond the combat role, Both Brazil and Italy have used their AMX fleets to aid civilian organizations at home.
The reconnaissance abilities of the AMX came to the fore following the 2019 eruption of the Stromboli volcano on Sicily and the 2016 earthquake in central Italy. The extremely high image quality the reconnaissance pods the aircraft were equiped with could deliver was immensely helpful in accurately assessing the damage of both disasters and helping rescue crews find survivors quickly and efficiently.
For many years, the Brazilian armed forces have worked in conjunction with civilian law enforcement agencies to combat a variety of illegal activities in the Amazon rain forest and national border regions. Part of this has been against the narcotics trade, the Brazilian air force has included their AMX fleet in carrying out reconnaissance and attack missions against illegal airfields serving the drug trade within the country’s borders.
The AMX Today and Learning More
As mentioned earlier in this article, the AMX was never used by anyone outside of Brazil or Italy and has never been a common sight at airshows. As such, it may come as no surprize that your chances of seeing one may be quite slim unless you travel to one of its countries of origin.
While the Brazilian AMX fleet is set to serve until the late 2020s or early 2030s, the curtain is quickly falling on AMX operations in Italy. As of 2020, only a single squadron of the type remains active in Italian service. The AMX will be replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter in Italy.
While some examples of the AMX have found their way into museums in Brazil and Italy, it will not be much longer before a trip to Brazil might be your only chance to see an active example of the type.
The following links will take you to further reading about the AMX in both Brazilian and Italian air forces:
This link will take you to a page about the AMX at Embraer’s website:
AMX page on Embraer website
While dated in places, this article gives some insights into the development and early service of the AMX in Brazil:
Article at rudnei.cunha.nom.br
This is a very good reportage from 2018 of a visit to Istrana Air Base in north eastern Italy, the last home of the Italian AMX:
Article at lowapproach.be
This is another very good base visit report focusing on Istrana. This one is from 2017:
Article at vortex-images.com