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This Week in Review: What would it take for Pakistan to produce helicopters? (Discussion)
September 21, 2019
A Pakistani Mi-171 helicopter picking up MEDEVAC personnel.

This Week in Review: What would it take for Pakistan to produce helicopters? (Discussion)

Every weekend, Quwa will close the week’s news with a review and analysis with the aim to tie together several topics into broader themes. It is an opportunity to reflect upon and discuss issues in a way where key trends are identified and individual news topics are connected into a “bigger picture.”

This Week in Review: What would it take for Pakistan to produce helicopters? (Discussion)

Foreword: This is not a news story, but a purely analytical piece for the purpose of discussion. There are no officially stated plans in any of Pakistan’s policy circles to engage in domestic helicopter production.

Recently, the Government of Algeria and Leonardo, an Italian defence giant, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to raise a helicopter production facility in Algeria’s Sétif province.

The Ain Arnat facility will offer maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) as well as assembly services to support current and future Algerian helicopter purchases from Leonardo. The specific helicopter types to be dealt with at Ain Arnat have not been disclosed, but according to IHS Jane’s and Defence Web, one could reasonably expect to see the facility manage light and medium-lift helicopters.

In time, Algeria could work towards enhancing Ain Arnat’s capacity, especially genuine manufacturing, which could enable Algeria to become a source of spare parts which Leonardo could use to help sustain its global supply chain.

In response to this news, and potentially in light of the recent launch ceremony of the Pakistan Navy Fleet Tanker, which was produced at Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW) with support from STM Turkey (and championed as an example of domestic production), a number of Quwa readers have raised the question of whether helicopters could be produced in Pakistan. The answer to this question will depend on how one defines “produce.

Native manufacturing of complex solutions such as aircraft is neither a simple or low-cost avenue. To indigenously produce the airframe in its entirety requires substantial investment in a number of complex and high-value areas. These areas include advanced metallurgy and composite development, precision tooling, and assembly. This is not an exhaustive list, nor does it account for the arduous process of actually designing and developing an airframe from scratch, but genuine manufacturing is a capital intensive task, even for readymade solutions acquired off-the-shelf.

Often times, the task of genuine manufacturing is confused with assembling, the latter is a less intensive task in that it simply involves the assembling of pre-manufactured components. It is also less costly and much easier to implement. Algeria’s deal with Leonardo is not one of genuine manufacturing (at least at this time), but assembly (as well as MRO and training). Yes, the Ain Arnat facility could develop and expand into the area of manufacturing eventually, but this would – at best – be a long-term factor. Moreover, it would require substantial investment, especially if pursued with complete airframe manufacturing (much less turboshaft engine and avionics production) in mind. A more likely route would be parts manufacturing – i.e. a scenario where Algeria produces certain components indigenously, and in turn, supplies them to Leonardo (which can then sell them to third party helicopter users).

In Pakistan’s case, the vast bulk of domestic production is essentially assembly, especially in complex areas such as warship building. Even the Pakistan Navy Fleet Tanker, which had launched for sea trials last week, was produced with manufactured kits supplied from STM Turkey (STM). On the other hand, the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) JF-17 is an attempt at building genuine manufacturing capacities in Pakistan, but 42% of the airframe is still imported from China. Yet, the Thunder required a significant investment, and the military’s willingness to back it in this form stemmed from the reality that an alternative avenue for a flexible backbone multi-role fighter was simply not available.

Herein lie several important points. First, the process of building a genuine manufacturing base for just an airframe – much less the engine – is a very expensive proposition, even for wealthy countries. Second, Pakistan’s own ability to manufacture complex solutions is still in its infancy. Third, the motivation to enter manufacturing works has to stem from absolute necessity. In terms of the third factor, if an affordable and sufficiently capable alternative exists, even as a straightforward import, Pakistan will almost certainly take up that available platform (and abandon the idea of domestic development or manufacturing). Ultimately, the Pakistani military is a cost-sensitive entity.

One might propose the idea of standardizing the operational needs of armed forces and civilian users within the country as a means to create scale, which in turn could justify the costs of bringing in-house helicopter manufacturing. In theory, it is an excellent idea, but the practical implementation may not fit neatly. Each of Pakistan’s service arms has unique operational needs.

For example, the Pakistan Navy requires helicopters that are suited to the maritime warfare environment, i.e. it needs a platform that is resistant to salt-erosion but is also capable of launching an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) torpedo or anti-ship missile (AShM). This platform would also need a capable electronics warfare (EW) and electronics countermeasures (ECM) suite so that it has a chance at surviving in a combat environment. These are very specific requirements, and having to incorporate them into a helicopter design may result in other service arms, such as the Pakistan Army, incurring a ‘cost punishment.’

The Pakistan Army will probably not desire such a complex machine; it simply needs a utility helicopter that it can use to ferry troops and supplies behind enemy lines. Yet, if the helicopter is designed to do much more, then the costs associated with those features will have to be distributed among users who have no need for those features. In other words, the Army, Air Force, law enforcement agencies, and civil services will be stuck paying for a design that is capable of effective ASW. And this is simply the cost of development, never mind the costs associated with actually producing each helicopter (which will include additional costs, such as the cost of building the manufacturing line for that helicopter). While Pakistan’s financial problems are not new, the costs being discussed would impact much wealthier countries.

The case made in this article is in regards to manufacturing and complete standardization, especially under Pakistan’s current political and climate. However, this is not to say that certain steps cannot be taken towards generating a helicopter industry in Pakistan. Platform rationalization (within the Army), domestic MRO, spare parts manufacturing via commercial offsets, and over the long-term, joint-ventures in areas that correspond with actual wide-scale requirements, could be pursued. These will be discussed later in a separate article.