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For Pakistan the Denel Rooivalk Mk2 is a Credible Contingency Option

Current tensions between Ankara and Washington have cast doubt on whether Turkish Aerospace will be able to bring Pakistan’s order for 30 T129 ATAK attack helicopters to fruition. The concern stems from the fact that the T129’s engine – i.e. the Light Helicopter Turbine Engine Company (LHTEC) CTS800 turboshaft engine – is a restricted item governed under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR). Products under ITAR require the US Department of State to release a permit enabling for third-party sales.[1] On the surface, Turkey should not have a problem exporting the CTS800 to Pakistan as Pakistan had already been cleared for other ITAR-restricted goods, such as the General Electric T700-GE-401C of the AH-1Z Viper.

However, observers are unsure if the US will release this permit to Turkey on account of the latter’s push for Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf long-range air defence systems from Russia. Quwa had discussed this issue in detail in a previous article. It must be noted that as of this article’s writing, no official information has emerged regarding the restriction (or lack thereof). As it stands today, Turkish Aerospace is to deliver the first batch of T129s to Pakistan in 2018.[2] The issue has largely been raised by observers, though given the decisiveness of the White House as of late, it is a plausible outcome. Thus, Pakistan – if it intends to supplant its aging AH-1F/S Cobra attack helicopters – must have a contingency option in place.

Expectedly, China would likely emerge as the primary option. Granted, the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps (PAA) turned away the Z-10, but that decision does not preclude the Chinese from further developing the Z-10 or, potentially, introducing another attack helicopter more in line with the PAA’s operational needs. There is also Russia, which has sold four Mi-35M assault helicopters to Pakistan and, according to a news report from Jane’s Defence Weekly in 2016, the Mi-28NE was offered.[3]

However, of the attack helicopters Pakistan examined or expressed interest in, none of them included a domestic production and transfer-of-technology (ToT) element by default. Pakistan had examined options that it could procure off-the-shelf as direct imports. In of itself, this is not surprising as the entirety of the PAA’s helicopter fleet comprises of solely off-the-shelf imports. But as each of the aforementioned options demonstrate, there is a critical risk (especially for Pakistan) to relying on imports, albeit for varied reasons.

Be it regulatory constraints (e.g. AH-1Z, T129), misaligned capabilities (Z-10) or uncertainty (Mi-28NE), the fact that the PAA would rely on a solely imported solution to carry its close air support (CAS) requirements. This is especially intriguing considering the push to build a so-called ‘aviation city’ in Kamra via the creation of the Aviation Design Institute (AvDI), Aviation Research, Indigenization and Development (AvRID) as well as a new Air University campus in the vicinity of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC).[4] Granted, AvDI and AvRID are primarily geared towards bringing the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) next fighter program to fruition, but that need not preclude the Kamra Aviation City initiative from helicopters.

Pakistan ostensibly requires attack helicopters to sustain its CAS needs in anti-armour and infantry-support operations. This is an indispensable asset, so it stands that a domestic support chain that goes beyond depot-level maintenance by supplanting lost aircraft and spur new capability gains without having to procure a new platform or sustain costly (especially from a foreign/hard-currency standpoint) imports.

Unfortunately, the PAA’s attack helicopter requirement is pressing. The availability of the JF-17 enabled the PAF to stage Project Azm as a long-term program, one that could – potentially – supplant the JF-17 as opposed to any of the PAF’s current fighters (e.g. the F-7P). In a sense, the T129 was (and possibly still is) an ideal solution in that it fully addresses the PAA’s current needs while also rationalizing partnering with Turkish Aerospace on the heavier (i.e. six to nine-ton) ATAK-2. Thus, staging the entirety of the PAA’s AH-1F/S replacement needs to solely the Rooivalk 2 or ATAK-2 is untenable.

In effect, the PAA could simply end-up with a near-term, off-the-shelf purchase (likely from China). But if the reality of the PAF and, until recently, the PN is of any indication, waiting (albeit with a gap induced by a lack of options and/or funding) for a permanent, long-term solution is justifiable. Alternatively, this can also be a question to examine in addition to an off-the-shelf purchase, T129 or Z-10.

Denel Rooivalk Mk2

The Rooivalk Mk2, a proposed revival of the Rooivalk attack helicopter by South Africa’s Denel Aeronautics could have the requisite technical, regulatory/trade-control and industrial attributes to serve as the PAA’s contingency attack helicopter option. Technically, the Rooivalk is an eight to nine-ton design powered by two Turbomeca (now Safran Group) Makila 1K2 turboshaft engines, each with an output of 1,420 kW. In other words, the Rooivalk is technically an AH-1Z-class-sized attack helicopter.

Denel had announced the Rooivalk Mk2 in 2016 as a domestic and export-oriented project to succeed the Rooivalk Mk1F.[5] The Rooivalk Mk2 was envisaged to improve upon the Rooivalk Mk1’s payload, munitions load and survivability.[6] A salient factor of the Rooivalk Mk2 is that Denel will retain the same engine and airframe, i.e. it will not change the helicopter’s critical components.[7] However, Denel would require four years to bring the helicopter to fruition for serial production.[8]

The Rooivalk’s engine and dynamic components are those of the Airbus Helicopters H215 Super Puma, a legacy transport helicopter that is still in production (today, via Airbus Helicopters’ Romania plant). Thus, the components – at least in their own right – are tested and affordable. The main constraint is third-party approval from Airbus Helicopters. In Denel’s earlier attempts to market the Rooivalk, Airbus had blocked those transfers because the Rooivalk was competing with the Tiger attack helicopter. Today, Airbus is no longer pushing the Tiger (as aggressively) and, in turn, is not opposing the Rooivalk.

In fact, in September 2016 Airbus Helicopters and Denel signed a memorandum-of-understanding (MoU) to upgrade South Africa’s existing Rooivalk helicopters (namely, supplant obsolete items) and, ostensibly, help Denel in the development of a revitalized Rooivalk attack helicopter platform.[9] Granted, these issues are generally in flux, so Airbus Helicopters’ willingness today should not be taken as a constant.

However, there should be sufficient time to at least absorb the Rooivalk Mk2’s production, rebuild and development infrastructure on a turnkey basis. Once absorbed, Pakistan could use that infrastructure (in context of AvRID, AvDI and PAC) to continue its development on a new engine and dynamic parts platform.

The South African government’s previous Secretary of Defence, Dr Sam Gulube, stated: “We are looking at about 60 or so aircraft to be used by African air forces as well as their possible sale to BRICS partners, Brazil and India.”[10] First, it is unlikely at this stage that India would be interested seeing that it is invested in the Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian. Second, it is possible that the stated figure – i.e. 60 – is what Denel believes to be a sufficient production run to amortize the Rooivalk Mk2’s overhead.

The latter is important. It suggests that Denel will not attempt to offset the cost it had previously written down to develop the Rooivalk. In addition, 60 – especially over a long-term production-run (e.g. over 10, 15 or 20 years) – is sustainable for Pakistan to absorb independently without a partner to share scale. This coupled with the fact that the Rooivalk Mk2 would rely on an existing (and already amortized) engine and dynamic parts platform from the Super Puma gives the Rooivalk Mk2 attributes for a feasible project (on that note, closer parity between the Pakistani Rupee and South African Rand also helps by lowering hard-currency strains on Pakistan and keeping spending closer to the fiscal side of its capacity than monetary).

Does the Rooivalk Mk2 fit with the PAA’s Operational Requirements?

The cut in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and ITAR problems notwithstanding, the PAA had planned to maintain a fleet of eight-to-nine-ton and five-ton helicopters in the AH-1Z and T129, respectively. Be it via the T129 or the Z-10, the PAA would still have a potential opening for a heavier complement (if the AH-1Z is not delivered). Granted, the likeliest scenario would be an off-the-shelf platform and, as a consequence, it would not be surprising if the PAA actively pursues the Mi-28NE from Russia.

However, none of the aforementioned solutions would solve the underlying problem: the precariousness of totally relying on overseas suppliers for a highly valuable offensive and defensive asset. If the PAF has concluded that its long-term viability is tied to Project Azm (to carry its future airpower capabilities), then it stands that the Army would treat attack helicopters in a similar vein. Yes, there is a spectrum at hand: a next-generation fighter is arguably a more strategic asset than an attack helicopter, but in that vein, the Army can opt to maintain a more liberal policy on imported technology.

On the surface, this idea might conflict with a domestically produced attack helicopter, but it would align with the Army’s approach thus far in other domains. Like the al-Khalid main battle tank (MBT), the Army can approach the Rooivalk Mk2 from the standpoint of (1) domestically manufacturing the helicopter, (2) possessing the ability to integrate subsystems of its choice and (3) continue developing the platform, but through the use of overseas suppliers for critical systems, such as engines.

Yes, this does not entirely solve the overseas reliance issue, but it does not necessarily tie the Army to a fixed-set of suppliers for its needs. There is value in possessing the ability to integrate alternate systems, at least more so than being restricted to the choices – and consequences – of one key supplier (e.g. where Turkey might be unwilling to explore a Safran engine in lieu of the CTS800, Pakistan could look into it had this been its own attack helicopter program).

Moreover, by maintaining rights over the intellectual property and a turnkey facility, Pakistan can actively work to not just find alternative engines, but design one. One of Pakistan’s suppliers (albeit for Mi-17/171 engines), Ukraine, has a turboshaft engine development and manufacturing base through Motor Sich. In fact, Motor Sich has a new line of turboshaft engines under the MS-500V-series.[11] Yes, the MS-500V would not have sufficient power to support the Rooivalk, but it is evidence of continued turboshaft development work which can be expanded (with long-term funding) into higher-output engines.

Operationally, the Rooivalk Mk2 can work as a workhorse anti-armour attack helicopter, especially in the eastern front in Pakistan’s desert environments. The sensibility in this respect is that Pakistan would have a relatively sanction-safe attack helicopter available for conventional operations, especially if (albeit over the long-term and through future variants) it secures or produces sanction-free critical parts.

[1] Types of Third Party Transfers. US Department of State. URL: https://www.state.gov/t/pm/rsat/c14028.htm (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[2] İbrahim Sünnetçi. “T129 ATAK Helicopters and ADA Class Corvettes Sale to Pakistan.” Defence Turkey. Volume 12. Issue 84. 2018. URL: https://www.defenceturkey.com/en/content/t129-atak-helicopters-and-ada-class-corvettes-sale-to-pakistan-3121

[3] Nikolai Novichkov. “Pakistan reveals interest in Russian dual-control Mi-28NEs.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 31 March 2016. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20160608070130/https://www.janes.com/article/59160/pakistan-reveals-interest-in-russian-dual-control-mi-28nes (Last Accessed: 03 September 2018).

[4] Promotional Information. Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. URL: http://www.pac.org.pk/avrid (Last Accessed: 03 September 2018).

[5] Press Release. “The Power Of The Rooivalk On Show During A Three Day Demonstration.” Denel SOC. 02 February 2018. URL: http://www.denel.co.za/press-article/The-Power-Of-The-Rooivalk-On-Show-During-A-Three-Day-Demonstration/113 (Last Accessed: 03 September 2018).

[6] Guy Martin. “Feature: Denel pushing Rooivalk Mk 2, export orders.” Defence Web. 16 February 2016. URL: http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=42356 (Last Accessed: 03 September 2018).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “AAD 2016: Airbus Helicopters and Denel Aviation to cooperate on modernisation of the Rooivalk.” African Aerospace Defence. 15 September 2016. URL: https://www.africanaerospace.aero/aad-2016-airbus-helicopters-and-denel-aviation-to-cooperate-on-modernisation-of-the-rooivalk.html (Last Accessed: 03 September 2018).

[10] “Talks about next generation Rooivalk on table at AAD.” Defence Web. 13 September 2016. URL: http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=45056%3Atalks-about-next-generation-rooivalk-on-table-at-aad&catid=35%3AAerospace&Itemid=107 (Last Accessed: 03 September 2018).

[11] Promotional Material. MS-500V. Motor Sich. URL: http://www.motorsich.com/eng/products/aircraft/turboshaft/ms500v/ (Last Accessed: 03 September 2018).

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