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Ideas for a helicopter industry in Pakistan (Discussion)
September 21, 2019
A pair of Pakistan's Z-10 attack helicopters flying past a parade venue as part of Pakistan's national day parade on 23 March 2016. Photo credit: Reuters.

Ideas for a helicopter industry in Pakistan (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.

Last week, we had discussed the challenges Pakistan would face in terms of raising a domestic helicopter industry. The discussion was spurred by Algeria’s decision to work with the Italian defence giant Leonardo in order to raise an assembly and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) plant in the Sétif province. In that article, we had discussed the differences between assembling and genuine manufacturing, and had concluded that the latter is a very complex undertaking.

With last week’s discussion in mind, it is important to recognize that the difficulties Pakistan would face in terms of helicopter manufacturing do not prevent it from raising a viable helicopter industry. As with the combat aircraft industry, which is now engaged in at least partial airframe manufacturing, the nucleus of a functional helicopter industry would commence with domestic MRO. Although Pakistan may not build its own helicopters, with a strong domestic MRO infrastructure, it can at least have the opportunity to independently operate its aircraft – i.e. with minimal dependence on foreign vendors.

The MRO aspect could involve depot level maintenance of the airframe, avionics and turboshaft engines. It could also potentially include spare parts manufacturing (e.g. of the most stressed and worn-out parts of the airframe). The MRO process would start (if it has not already) from the Pakistan Army’s workhorse transport helicopters, namely the Mil Mi-171 and Airbus (formerly Aerospatiale) SA-330 Puma. Older – and non-restorable – airframes will likely be replaced by newer versions of the same helicopter. In fact, Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) had expressed interest in acquiring Puma helicopters from Romania, which is in the process of reviving its production line under Airbus Helicopters’ direction.

If Pakistan commits to a sufficiently large number of these utility helicopters, it would be feasible for it to construct the domestic MRO base as well as potentially begin branching into fields such as assembly, if not parts manufacturing. There is a cost to building such capacities, but in the long-term, the ability to produce assemble and produce spare parts under one’s own currency and with domestic labour costs will accrue meaningful savings. An acquisition of this nature could also require commercial offsets in the form of enabling Pakistan to export domestically produced parts back to the original vendor.

In a few cases, a domestic support base may not require a large number of helicopters. Dedicated attack helicopters are essential systems, and the Pakistan Army may even center its long-term close air support (CAS) strategy on these aircraft. However, unlike a basic transport helicopter for ferrying, an attack helicopter is equipped with a number of high-value subsystems. These can include an electronic warfare suite, possibly an electronic countermeasures suite, and potentially even a millimetre wave radar.

To put it simply, a single attack helicopter can cost substantially more than a single Mi-171 or H215 Super Puma. However, sanctions could scuttle the Army’s ability to operate its vitally important air combat arm. In this scenario, it would be wise to invest in an MRO base as well as spare parts manufacturing, so as to at least ensure that one could independently operate their fleet with minimal external dependence. The right vendor could help in terms of easing the cost impact (via commercial offsets), but the long-term gain of ensuring that one could fully utilize their expensive attack helicopters in times of war or even tension (that could result in sanctions or vendor uneasiness) will outweigh the cost.

Based on the two cases above, Pakistan could potentially build a domestic helicopter industry, albeit with a strong emphasis on MRO, and a relatively small – but growing – focus on manufacturing. There are political advantages too in that the helicopter industry could be inserted into less developed regions, such as Baluchistan (thus serving as a valuable stimulus for the province). A near-term shift to manufacturing is not likely to happen, but a gradual build-up to it through experience in depot-level maintenance and manufacturing specific components is plausible.

If Pakistan happens to one day become flush with research and development (R&D) funding, and that too after addressing more important strategic programs (e.g. next-generation munitions, hypersonic glide vehicles, etc), then helicopter development could enter the pipeline. However, this scenario is far from a reality under current economic conditions.