Foreword: This is not a news story, but a piece for discussion. The details offered in this article are not authoritative pieces of information, but rather, perspectives of the author.
In 2016, the Pakistan Army was linked to four dedicated attack helicopter platforms – the Bell Helicopters AH-1Z, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) T-129, Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC) Z-10, and Mil Mi-28NE. With TAI expressing its confidence in securing a Pakistani T-129 order, questions regarding the Pakistan Army’s attack helicopter plans arisen, such as, among others, “why is Pakistan selecting multiple platforms?” or “what is going to happen to the Z-10 (or T-129 and Mi-28NE)?”
Pakistan ordered the first batches of the 15 AH-1Z approved by the U.S. State Department. The Pakistan Army is also operating three Z-10s, with two units spotted in the desert areas of Punjab in late 2016. In June 2016, Pakistan examined a T-129 for its performance in hot-and-high conditions, durability in desert environments, and ferry range. It also observed the T-129’s weapon testing in Turkey. Finally, IHS Jane’s reported that the Pakistan had expressed interest in the Mi-28NE from Russia.
Except for the Mi-28NE, the Pakistan Army has either bought, used or examined the AH-1Z, Z-10 and T-129, respectively. The latter three certain options, while the Mi-28NE is possible, though unconfirmed (in terms of official and verifiable information). The Pakistan Army also ordered four Mi-35M from Russia, but the Hind platform is unique in that it can ferry persons in addition to carrying guided air-to-surface munitions, such as anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and laser-guided rockets. The Hind need not be put in the same category as dedicated attack platforms such as the AH-1Z, Z-10 and T-129.
The table below details several performance attributes of each helicopter platform. However, credible information of the Z-10 was not available, much less official specifications from CAIC. With the information available, it would be reasonable to assume that the Z-10 is a medium-weight platform like the TAI T-129. The AH-1Z and Mi-28NE are noticeably heavier platforms, especially in terms of payload capacity, with each capable of carrying up to 16 ATGMs, which is double the load of the Z-10 and T-129.
Attack Helicopter Comparison
While there may be performance variances, this article will assume that each helicopter’s onboard suite will be comparable and will include essentials, such as radar warning receivers (RWR), directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM), helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) systems, and electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) systems. To argue that a certain suite is superior or inferior to another would require specific information that is unavailable in open source channels. Moreover, Pakistan could potentially plug electronics deficiencies using off-the-shelf third-party subsystem purchases.
Bell Helicopters AH-1Z Viper
Technically, the AH-1Z is a well-rounded platform. Besides possessing the payload and flight performance expected of a high-quality design, the AH-1Z benefits from economies-of-scale (driven by sales to the U.S. Marine Corps) and gradual platform maturation (of the AH-1W Super Cobra). With amphibious operations in mind, the AH-1Z’s airframe was designed to be resistant to corrosion.
In 2015, the U.S. State Department approved a proposed sale of 15 AH-1Zs to Pakistan (alongside 1,000 AGM-114R Hellfire-II ATGMs). Pakistan has ordered at least 9 AH-1Z helicopters. However, Pakistan’s defence ties with the U.S. are precarious, and the prospect of follow-on orders to the 15 approved for sale is far from certain. That said, there is little reason to believe that Pakistan will not opt for additional AH-1Zs if given the opportunity, especially if the U.S. follows through on providing military aid. Unless the Mi-28NE is procured, the AH-1Z would effectively be Pakistan’s heaviest attack helicopter platform.
Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC) Z-10
Pakistan acquired three CAIC Z-10s from China in 2015. The objective of the acquisition is not known, but it is generally believed that the Pakistan Army procured the Z-10s for long-term examination.
While official specifications are not available, it appears that the Z-10 is a light to medium-weight platform akin to the TAI T-129. Thus, it could be assumed that the Z-10 and T-129 are being evaluated against one another – the winner would complement the AH-1Z.
Two Z-10s were taking part in a desert operations exercise in November 2016, indicating that the Army is keen on deploying the Z-10 – and attack helicopters generally – for anti-armour and conventional close air support (CAS) missions. If robust CAS coverage is a goal, then the Pakistan Army may need to consider larger attack helicopter fleet. The Z-10 is likely the most affordable way to achieve that objective.
Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) T-129
Technically, the T-129 is in the same general space as the Z-10. TAI sent a T-129 to Pakistan for evaluation (over a 15-day period) in late May and early June, during which the Pakistan Army flew the helicopter in many conceivable combat environments. As per TAI, the T-129 was flown at high-altitude – 14,000 ft (4267 m) and in hot environments of up to 50°C. The T-129 was also tested for its range and endurance – i.e. flying from Quetta to Multan without refuelling.
In early November 2016, a Pakistan Army delegation observed the T-129’s weapon tests, which involved examining Aselsan’s electro-optical (EO) system and Roketsan’s anti-tank guided-missiles (ATGM). As per the Turkish Undersecretariat for Defence Industries (SSM) (via MSI Turkish Defence Review), the Pakistan Army was “satisfied” with the T-129 and its various tests. Interestingly, Mustafa Şeker from the SSM told MSI that the T-129 was “required by the Pakistan Army, Navy and Air Force.”
During the 2016 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), TAI told MSI that it was waiting to be called by Pakistan for negotiations. Last week, TAI’s General Manager Temel Kotil claimed that TAI would be selling T-129s to Pakistan “in the coming months.”
Mil/Russian Helicopters Mi-28NE
Pakistan has yet to examine the Mi-28NE, but in contrast to the Z-10 and T-129, the Mi-28NE is a genuine heavyweight attack helicopter. Its payload capacity is comparable to that of the AH-64-series and it has reinforced armour for defensibility against unguided and guided munitions. Unfortunately, there has yet to be any traction on the helicopter since media reports linked Pakistan to the platform. Thus far, it does not appear to be a factor in the Pakistan Army’s attack helicopter plans. Besides the Mi-28NE, the only other non-U.S. heavyweight platform is the Denel Aviation Rooivalk, but until there is tangible progress in the Rooivalk Mk2, the Rooivalk is also not a factor.
There are two ways to observe Pakistan’s attack helicopter requirements. The conservative – and most likely – scenario would be the addition of only one other type: The Z-10 or T-129. Ultimately, the winning supplier will be chosen on affordability, but TAI’s fortunes may tilt in its favour if Ankara agrees to expand its credit pilot to accommodate the T-129.
However, if the Pakistan Army is seeking quantity, it would be difficult to overlook the Z-10. Had it simply been an issue of high-altitude operations, the T-129 might have been the leading contender, but long-range endurance and desert operations indicate that the Pakistan Army Aviation branch is seeking to expand its CAS coverage for conventional infantry and armour support.
The alternate scenario, albeit less likely, is of the Pakistan Army acquiring both the Z-10 and T-129. The T-129 could potentially be sought for its high-altitude performance, which may be useful to support infantry in Pakistan’s northern environments. In turn, these may be bought in limited numbers, with the Z-10 still forming the anti-armour workhorse for Punjab and Sindh.
Adding both would add strain to the Army Aviation’s maintenance channels. Moreover, the Z-10 and T-129 are mostly redundant in terms of weight class and payload, it would be more sensible to have one of these join a heavier platform instead. Currently, that ‘heavier platform’ is the AH-1Z.