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Discussion: Pakistan’s attack helicopter options

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.

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  • by MzUnGu
    Posted February 12, 2017 9:54 pm 0Likes

    Whoever offers to teach Pakistan how to assemble and build these copters in Pakistan will win.. 😀

  • by Alex Retiman
    Posted February 13, 2017 1:51 am 0Likes

    AH-1Z is prone to sanctions anytime. Thus Russian option makes sense. T-129 is also prone to sanctions as some components are US/European, and require export clearance. Thus Z-10 should be the obvious choice.

  • by Türker Demircan
    Posted February 13, 2017 6:45 am 0Likes

    Bilal Khan, what is the maximum expected number for T-129 (or Z-10) ? I understand not 30-40, something like 10 to 15 units

  • by Matthys Jacobs
    Posted February 13, 2017 9:14 am 0Likes

    I disagree that the Denel Rooivalk is not a factor.

    if Pakistan wishes to build and export it’s own Attack helicopter than it provides a perfect solution.

    Denel has shown with various products that it offers the most in terms of transfer of technology. The UAE is an excellent example of this with the Umbani and Nimr range of vehicles.

    Also the AH-1Z will always attract US restriction and the likelihood of allowing production is low. The same could be said for both the Mi-28 and Z-10.

    The Turkish T-129 would still require Italian support thus inflating the price.

    The Rooivalk uses a host of components that has commonality with the Super Puma which is one of the most used helicopters in the military and civilian space.

    It also allows pakistan to work on the basics of attaining the sort of IP needed.

  • by Headstrong
    Posted February 13, 2017 10:11 am 0Likes

    Rooivalk in its present configuration needs upgrading. I understand Denel is looking for a partner to help in funding the R&D of Rooivalk 2. In such a situation the author is right that Rooivalk is not a factor.

  • by OSD
    Posted February 13, 2017 10:30 am 0Likes

    I think the T-129 or Z-10 fleet will be very large because one of the main threats to Pakistan is the huge Indian armored fleet and attack helicopters are the most effective platform to knock out tanks. Since 15 AH-1Zs and 4 Mi-35 have already been ordered, it is clear that the Pakistan army has decided to build up its attack helicopter fleet and so it can number up to a 100 units or even more.

  • by OSD
    Posted February 13, 2017 10:35 am 0Likes

    I don’t think that is a primary consideration. Pakistan has taken a very different route from India in that it has partnered with a very strong manufacturer like China to develop a relatively less sophisticated fighter jet and so has been able to complete the project within budget and time. As this approach has shown itself to be much more successful than what happened with the Tejas, I don’t think the Pakistan army will take the risk of wasting precious resources in going into a complicated project like building an attack helicopter just yet. What they can do is work with the Chinese to develop the Z-10 like the PAF did when it helped develop the F-6.

  • by Matthys Jacobs
    Posted February 13, 2017 11:19 am 0Likes

    I would think it depends on Pakistan’s Goals and Aspirations regarding it’s defence industry.

    What would benefit Pakistan’s defence industry more with the current options added to that global political dynamics?

  • by Terex
    Posted February 13, 2017 12:20 pm 0Likes

    Despite project delay & failures in developing 4th gen technologies for LCA,Tejas is better learning experience for india than Jf17 is for pakistan
    Indian have been running 100 labs right from designing airframes with CFD,Finite elementary analysis to testing labs for frames, high altitude engine testing platform. DRDO labs have been working on turbofan,avionics,flight control, Doppler/aesa radar.
    Pakistan industry is atleast 2decades behind india by capacity of its R&D
    (India have started investing in aeronautics R&D since 1980’s. So it took 30 yrs to make some of the subsystem. These labs will continue to work for future projects)
    If ever pak decides to develop aircraft on its own,Pak will have to start from scratch while they have learnt nothing more than assembly of frames from current project. Pak was not involved in design,development & technology creation

    so Pak had done with JF17 what India did with Mig21 & Su30MKI(despite india learning to manufacture more items of Su30. eg .Engine & avionics)

    The only advantage of JF17 project is procurement and creation of collobration with chinese. So next Chinese product too will be licensed produced at kamra

  • by Steve
    Posted February 13, 2017 12:51 pm 0Likes

    We have already started procuring Mi-35 and AH1-Z. Let’s keep these going for FATA and to counter Cold Start respectively and build up numbers slowly. The Hellfires are a good selling point for the Viper and we need about 40 of those over 10 years. One more numerous type will be needed for cost savings. Probably T-129. We need good SAM cover and more JF-17 or F-16’s as without that these will be sitting ducks for Indian Air Force supporting Cold Start.

  • by bill
    Posted February 13, 2017 1:17 pm 0Likes

    Dear ur points are quite valid yet infrastructure/financial constraints are realities which cannot be forgotten as JF17 production came after gradually after several years. Though we have capable aeronautical engineers techs yet they are not sufficient enough to be engaged in production of an attack helicopter it may take time similarly infrastructure/financial issues also can’t be neglected.

  • by Farqad
    Posted February 13, 2017 2:47 pm 0Likes

    Well your argument may seem accurate and correct but when ever a joint project is made both the sides get to know of the technology involved.
    The jf-17 fighter program came into existence so that pakistan could absorb some of the technology of the j-10!
    Which also why the program was very cheap and on time.
    As for now i think pac has mastered the technology of at least the thunder although we might not have fancy equipments like india does but we can surely use the Chinese labs and high tech equipments.

  • by MzUnGu
    Posted February 13, 2017 3:22 pm 0Likes

    I think you have a point… Personally I don’t think the number of copters they’ll be buying justify setting up shop in Pakistan.

  • by Türker Demircan
    Posted February 13, 2017 5:33 pm 0Likes

    100+ units really big number (Even for Turkey it is 51 units) …. I do not think Pakistan has this budget and also Turkey can supply such a financial package considering current economical situation

  • by Bilal Khan
    Posted February 13, 2017 6:04 pm 0Likes

    The initial batch may be 10-15, but the total goal (for the T-129/Z-10) would be in the 40 range.

  • by Bilal Khan
    Posted February 13, 2017 9:22 pm 0Likes

    Pakistan’s military decision-makers are generally risk-averse in that they prefer systems that are available today or at least backed by anchor users (e.g. China and Turkey). There are many reasons for this, most notably the lack of funds for deferred R&D and collaboration, but “the solution, today” and reactivity is their approach.

    Proactive long-term work is not there yet. The Air Force has begun taking steps in that direction with the Kamra Aviation City program, but it’ll be a while before we can even begin examining how well it does in steering decisions. Interestingly, the Army’s armour folk have started to renew talk of armour collaboration with Ukraine (knowing the kinds of problems Kiev is facing), so at least studying the Rooivalk Mk2 shouldn’t be ruled out.

  • by OSD
    Posted February 14, 2017 2:33 am 0Likes

    Let me explain the situation. The Pakistan-India rivalry is one of the fiercest in the world and India has more than 1500 tanks on our borders. So we do need a very big fleet of attack helicopters, which will still be cheaper to maintain than buying and maintaining 1500 tanks on the field. The thing is that Pakistan is a large country but it is more rectangular in shape and so there is much less depth. Thus it needs to stop any armored thrusts dead on the border. That is why I think the attack helicopter fleet will be very large.

  • by Matthys Jacobs
    Posted February 14, 2017 3:21 am 0Likes

    Funding constraints will always be a factor however since the South African Rand and Pakistani Rupee essentially trades within the 1 ZAR = 7.86 ‎PKR, the cost with working with a country like South Africa is far more favourable due to the exchange rate unlike Russia which prices their products in USD or EUR for purchasing. As far as I understand there’s no liquidity for a PKR/CNY swaps thus the underlying is probably USD as well.

    I think however going with the Rooivalk Mk2 would obviously be far more riskier than going with the Mi-28 or another Helicopter but the benefits to Pakistan’s industry would be higher.

    South Africa has a handful of aeronautical engineers as well, this is why it’s important to have collaboration on projects for cross skills pollination.

  • by ksal00
    Posted February 14, 2017 4:24 am 0Likes

    In a layman’s view:

    AH1Z-Viper can face sanction any given time based on mood of US. Mi28NE seems a logical choice, but Russians knowing our immediate needs can can use this to their advantage.

    Coming down to Z10 and T129, being light weight we can mix and match both platforms and also negotiate with CN for local production and RnD in-house. We should keep in mind the long term effectiveness of project with Z10 and further enhancement.

  • by OSD
    Posted February 14, 2017 6:00 am 0Likes

    Thank you for the compliment Sajid. With regards to the comparison of development of LCA Tejas and JF-17, Pakistan chose to partner with China and evolved the plane from an older design, while India started with a clean sheet design. The result is that the JF-17 came to fruition much earlier, at a lower cost and achieved the program goal of replacing the legacy fighters at a low cost. The LCA Tejas on the other hand has cost $2 billion, provided only 3 prototypes, still lacks FOC and has forced the IAF to look for a second fighter at a cost of $10-15 billion. In the short term, the PAF has saved a lot of resources and in the long term it allows the PAF to master project management and engineering capabilities. Many from the other side of the border defend that they have developed engineering expertise but the fact of the matter is that the LCA Tejas has no greater indigenization than the JF-17. All of the LCA Tejas sub projects are in various stages of disarray.

    The point is that after looking at everything, I for one am very proud of the way the PAF has managed the JF-17. It did set realistic goals and stuck to them. Now that they have achieved them, in the longer run, it will slowly develop its own engineering capabilities too.

  • by Saptarshi Dasgupta
    Posted February 14, 2017 10:20 am 0Likes

    Since we will operate 61 AH-64E apache block 3 and 179 LCH by 2025,T-129 and the chinese bird will not be as good as MI-28 NE and AH-1Z VIPER which are the best options.

  • by Mateen Zaman
    Posted February 14, 2017 12:21 pm 0Likes

    Maybe today Chinese birds are not comparable to their western,Russian or US counterparts but in very near future they may,the good think about Chinese is they are all out in providing whatever technology avail to them,mark it, nobody else will do this and the best part is they are providing the most deadly weapons with their guns,ship,helis ,fighter jets and rest other ,this is like a WW2 plane with deadly weapons can easily hit a generation 5 craft having no weapon,you talk of anything TOT,guaranteed supply,credit facility and a huge number,China is always the no 1 supplier and specially once the strategic relations are concerned and the things have gone to an extent that attack on one is considered a attack on other,this maybe a bottom line while selecting any option

  • by Mateen Zaman
    Posted February 14, 2017 12:31 pm 0Likes

    Boss,never mind the numbers of Indian tanks on our borders,has somebody witnessed the demonstration ?,Chinese arranged for gen Kayani,once he raised the threat of T 90s ,heavens know the system they demonstrated literally melted the tank,it was very scary

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