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Analysis: Pakistan’s T129 ATAK Purchase

On 13 July 2018, Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) signed a much-anticipated deal for 30 T129 ATAK attack helicopters from Turkish Aerospace and Turkey’s Defence Industries Undersecretariat (SSB). The deal, widely believed to be worth $1.5 billion US, is a “large contract package … [comprising] of logistics, spare parts, training and ammunition.”[1] The T129 contract is slated for completion in five years.[2]

For Turkey, the T129 sale to Pakistan represents Turkey’s single largest defence export to-date (followed by a $1 billion US sale of four MILGEM Ada corvettes to the Pakistan Navy). For Pakistan, the T129 will be a significant qualitative upgrade over its current fleet of roughly 40 AH-1F/S Cobras, which have served as the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps’ (PAA) mainstay attack helicopter since their induction in the 1980s.

Contract Details

According to Turkish Aerospace’s General manager Temel Kotil, the PAA will begin receiving its T129s in “less than a year.”[3] Based on the five-year project timeline, it appears that the PAA will induct its ATAK on an incremental basis, i.e. in small (e.g. 5-6 aircraft) annual batches. The first 10 ATAKs for the PAA will be T129B Block-Is, which will be similarly configured as the Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) Block-I.[4] The next 20 will be Block-IIs which, again, will be configured along similar lines as the TSK’s Block-IIs.[5]

The T129B Block-I is a baseline configuration equipped with an electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) turret, an integrated avionics suite, and semi-active laser-homing (SALH) anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) as well as 70 mm SALH air-to-ground rockets. The Roketsan UMTAS (Mizrak) ATGM offers a range of 500 m to 8,000 m.[6] Supporting weapons include the Roketsan CİRİT, a 2.75” air-to-ground rocket (range: 1,500 m to 8,000 m) and a single 20 mm nose-mounted cannon.

The onboard electronics suite also includes Aselsan’s AVCI Helmet Integrated Cueing System, which enables the pilot to direct the EO/IR turret for target identification and tracking.[7] In addition, the T129B Block-I is also equipped with a self-protection suite comprising of a missile warning system, a chaff and flare countermeasure system and directed infrared countermeasure system.[8] It is also includes the MXF-484 and 9651 V/UHF (Very and Ultra-High Frequency) radio systems (produced by Aselsan).[9]

The T129B Block-II retains the Block-I’s configuration, but it also features an electronic warfare (EW) suite equipped with a radio-frequency jammer, radar warning receiver (RWR), laser warning receiver (LWR) and Aselsan’s 9681 V/UHF (Very and Ultra-High Frequency) airborne radio terminals.[10] It should be noted that Turkish Aerospace and Meteksan are also testing a millimetric wave radar – i.e. Meteksan MILDAR – from the T129, but it is unclear if the MILDAR will be an option for the current ATAK or the future ATAK-2.[11]

Though a crude assessment, the PAA’s switchover from the Block-I to the Block-II would occur after two deliveries, i.e. two years into its procurement program. Firstly, this would imply that the PAA is essentially procuring its helicopters in alignment with the TSK, i.e. adopt the variant in production for the TSK and, in turn, free Turkish Aerospace to concentrate its facilities on a single variant. Should Pakistan opt for more Turkish Aerospace attack helicopters, it would choose the model in production at that time.

Secondly, although the deal is believed to involve a credit or loan mechanism, the incremental batches suggest that deliveries to Pakistan are still contingent on cash payments. The Turkish government’s ‘loan’ is channelled to Turkish Aerospace directly, which will manufacture the helicopters. Once Pakistan issues a cash payment, Turkish Aerospace will deliver them. However, should Pakistan lapse in a payment and/or opt to remove a batch, the risk to Turkey is limited. Yes, it would have surplus stocks, but seeing that the PAA’s T129s are identically configured as those of the TSK, the TSK could absorb them as part of its order.

Pakistan’s New Mainstay Attack Helicopter

Currently, the PAA’s mainstay attack helicopter is the AH-1F/S Cobra, which had either been acquired in the 1980s or bought surplus or second-hand from the U.S. and Jordan following 9/11. However, as of 2013 the PAA had been seeking a successor to the Cobra, which it heavily relied on to provide close air support (CAS) for its counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).[12]

The PAA originally shortlisted the AH-1Z Viper, T129 ATAK, Eurocopter Tiger and Boeing AH-64 Apache, but its fiscal constraints – while a constant – were particularly acute from 2009 to 2013.[13] Thus, the PAA was unable to commit to a new attack helicopter platform at the time.[14] During this period, Pakistan was beset by a combination of International Monetary Fund (IMF)-mandated austerity measures to the country’s fiscal exchequer and a costly, long-enduring COIN campaign in FATA.

However in 2015, the PA had reinitiated its process of recapitalizing the PAA’s attack helicopter fleet, i.e. issuing an order for 12 Bell Helicopter AH-1Z from the US and four Russian Helicopters Mi-35M. In 2015, it also activated a ‘plus-one’ or complementary attack helicopter program, i.e. a bid resulting in the T129.

In terms of COIN, the PAA had utilized the AH-1F/S in high-altitude operations, i.e. 9,000 ft (and at times even 14,000 ft) and where the AH-1F/S aircrew were required to wear oxygen masks. In its tests for the T129, the PAA was sure to force the helicopter operate in similar environments, i.e. 14,000 ft.[15] Prior to the T129 tests, the PAA also trailed (for an extended duration) three Z-10s from Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC) in China. However, the Z-10 was not selected (one can only speculate as to the reason why it was not chosen, though the PAA might have strongly emphasized high-altitude operations).

The current state of Pakistani-US defence relations have set it back, but the PAA evidently intended to see through a dual-platform fleet of dedicated attack helicopters, i.e. 12 AH-1Z and 30 T129. Compared to the T129, the AH-1Z has a heavier maximum take-off weight (MTOW) – i.e. 8.4 tons vs. 5 tons – and a markedly heavier payload (i.e. capacity to carry 16 ATGM to the T129’s eight). However, the underlying technology in the two platforms is similar, i.e. both include HMD, integrated countermeasures, V/UHF radio terminals, integrated EO/IR and ATGM-compatibility. Thus, the primary differences are in the airframe and engines.

T129 vs. AH-1F/S

In terms of the mainstay attack helicopter, the current T129 outlay plans for 30 helicopters to replace the PAA’s current fleet of 39 AH-1F/S.[16] However, a direct quantitative comparison would be erroneous; the T129 is a qualitatively superior platform in terms of its physical performance and its onboard electronics.

For example, the T129’s integrated ASELFLIR-300T EO/IR turret offers substantially improved situational awareness, targeting and nighttime operations capabilities over the AH-1F’s C-NITE (Cobra Night Imaging Thermal Equipment) suite. Granted, the underlying concept between the ASELFLIR-300T and C-NITE is the same, but the ASELFLIR-300T provides multi-target tracking, target geo-location capability and – through an integrated laser-designator with a range of 20 km – guidance for SALH ATGM.

In fact, the T129 aircrew can each view the surrounding environment through their AVCI HMD as well as cue ATGMs to targets via simple head movements. Likewise, the AVCI HMD – via the ASELFLIR-300T – can manage a target lock (by directing the ASELFLIR’s laser designator) for the L-UMTAS ATGM. Not only is the target engagement process from the T129 more seamless, but its main munition – the L-UMTAS – offers markedly improved range over the AH-1F/S’ TOW ATGM (8,000 m vs. <4,000 m). The L-UMTAS can engage via top-attack as well (i.e. over the top of an armoured vehicle, which is assumed to be its weakest part).

Thus, from the PAA’s standpoint the T129 and AH-1Z (as a combined fleet) would not only replace its AH-F/S units on a 1:1 basis, but do so with markedly improved qualitative capabilities. Likewise, through the Mi-35M is not a dedicated attack helicopter, it too appears to be equipped with an integrated electronics suite with SALH ATGM and 2.76 mm SALH rocket compatibility. Finally, the remaining 20 T129Bs will come equipped with EW, which adds a new dimension to the PAA’s air combat capabilities.

Though emphasis has been paid to the T129’s high-altitude capabilities (a factor for COIN and, arguably, anti-infantry operations along the Line of Control), the PAA does intend to use them for conventional anti-armour operations. In 2016, the PAA had tested the T129’s endurance by flying it – non-stop – for 480 km from Quetta to Multan. The T129 was also stationed in Quetta overnight (with temperatures reaching a minimum of 48° C) without its ground-support equipment.[17] Hence, the PAA tested the T129 for its endurance in hot and poorly supported environments. However, it is unknown how the T129 fared in terms of its resistance to dust or sand intrusion, a key issue in Pakistan’s anti-armour theatre.

Uncertainty

Pakistan’s macro-economic climate and potentially tightened fiscal situation through the newly appointed federal government could affect the T129 program. By maintaining an identical configuration to the TSK and committing to incremental batches, the deal is structured to be relatively low-risk for Turkey.

Should Pakistan fail to make a payment or reduce its order, surplus stocks could be assigned to the TSK with ease (with the TSK’s overall orders being met earlier than planned). Nonetheless, the Pakistan Army could opt to prioritize the T129 by reducing expenditure in other domains. In fact, a number of big-ticket purchases should be closing in terms of payments owed, such as the LY-80 surface-to-air missile purchase.

Thus, it would not be surprising if the T129 program was (bar notably severe fiscal constraints) structured to ensure that the Army is able to pay from its annual fiscal budget. However, this may reduce the space for other big-ticket procurement, such as armoured vehicles, until the ATAK program is fully completed.

 

[1] Press Release. “Pakistan – Signatures for 30 ATAK helicopters moved.” Savunma Sanayii Başkanı. Government of Turkey. 13 July 2018. URL: https://www.ssm.gov.tr/Website/contentList.aspx?PageID=1235&LangID=1.” (Last Accessed: 18 July 2018).

[2]  “Turkish attack helicopter deal with Pakistan worth around $1.5 billion: sources.” Reuters. 13 July 2018. URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-pakistan-defence/turkish-attack-helicopter-deal-with-pakistan-worth-around-1-5-billion-sources-idUSKBN1K30RN (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[3] Helen Haxell. “Farnborough 2018: Turkish Aerospace expanding helicopter portfolio.” Shephard Media. 17 July 2018. URL: https://www.shephardmedia.com/news/defence-helicopter/farnborough-2018-turkish-aerospace-expanding-helic/ (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[4] “Pakistan Chief of General Staff – T129 ATA Show Flight Tracked at Farnborough Air Show.” Defence Turkey. 16 July 2018. URL: http://www.defenceturkey.com/tr/icerik/pakistan-genelkurmay-2-baskani-farnborough-air-show-da-t129-atak-gosteri-ucusunu-izledi-3113#.W1UxU9JKiUn (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Promotional Material. “UMTAS Long Range Anti-Tank Missile System.” Roketsan. URL: http://www.roketsan.com.tr/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/UMTAS-ING-email1.pdf (Last Accessed: 16 July 2018).

[7] Promotional Material. “AVCI: Helmet Integrated Cueing System.” Aselsan. URL: https://www.aselsan.com.tr/en-us/capabilities/cpb13/Documents/AVCI_ENG.pdf (Last Accessed: 16 July 2018).

 

[8] Cem Akalın. “Turkey Ramps up T129 “Atak” Attack Helicopter Production.” Defence Turkey. Volume 12. Issue 78. 2017. URL: http://www.defenceturkey.com/en/content/turkey-ramps-up-t129-atak-attack-helicopter-production-2841#.W1aBRdJKiUk (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Pakistan Chief of General Staff – T129 ATA Show Flight Tracked at Farnborough Air Show.” Defence Turkey. 16 July 2018. URL: http://www.defenceturkey.com/tr/icerik/pakistan-genelkurmay-2-baskani-farnborough-air-show-da-t129-atak-gosteri-ucusunu-izledi-3113#.W1UxU9JKiUn (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[11] Cem Akalın. “Turkey Ramps up T129 “Atak” Attack Helicopter Production.” Defence Turkey. Volume 12. Issue 78. 2017. URL: http://www.defenceturkey.com/en/content/turkey-ramps-up-t129-atak-attack-helicopter-production-2841#.W1aBRdJKiUk (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[12] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Army Aviation: Special Report 2013”. Tangent Link. URL: http://tangentlink.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/2022_TangentLink_Pakistan-Army-Report-v1.pdf (Last Accessed: 14 February 2018).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15]  “TAI T129 ATAK at the Himalayas.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. November 2016. Issue 31.

[16] “World Air Force 2018.” Flight International. URL: https://www.flightglobal.com/asset/21905/waf/ (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[17]  “TAI T129 ATAK at the Himalayas.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. November 2016. Issue 31.

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