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IDEAS 2018: Updates to the Pakistan Army’s T129 ATAK Program

Despite some reports, the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps’ (PAA) T129 ATAK attack helicopter acquisition is on-track, according to Turkish Aerospace.

During the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), which was held in 27-30 November in Karachi, Pakistan, a Turkish Aerospace representative told Quwa that the PAA is slated to take delivery of its first attack helicopters in late 2020.

Tamer Özmen, Vice President of Corporate Marketing and Communications, told the state-owned news agency Anadolu Agency that there were no issues regarding the export of the T129’s engines to Pakistan.

The T129 is powered by two CTS800 turboshaft engines. The CTS800 is produced and marketed by LHTEC (Light Helicopter Turbine Engine Company), a joint-venture between Honeywell and Rolls-Royce.

Due to its US technology inputs, the CTS800 falls within ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations). ITAR requires the approval of the US government on third-party exports. Currently, Turkish Aerospace is waiting for that approval, though a decision (by Washington) has yet to be made.

Uncertainty regarding the sale of the CTS800 to Pakistan initially rose in August 2018 when observers – citing Ankara’s decision to procure the S-400 long-range air defence system from Russia in spite of US and NATO objections – noted that the US could block the third-party sale of these engines pressure Ankara.

Recently, Hurriyet reported that Turkish Aerospace was in talks with France and Poland over an alternative engine to power Pakistan’s T129s. That report was carried by Russian news agencies, including TASS. But this has yet to be corroborated by a verifiable source. Moreover, Turkish Aerospace denied the reports.

That said, the indefinite stay on the transfer of Bell Helicopter AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters (due to the US blocking military aid to Pakistan) and apparent uncertainty regarding the T129 has created an opening for the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and its new Z-10ME.

A variant of the Z-10, the Z-10ME promises improvements to the attack helicopter platform’s survivability, operability in desert environments and offensive combat capabilities. If anything, the Z-10ME offers the Pakistan Army an available alternative should the AH-1Z or T129 (or both) programs fall through.

However, it would not be surprising if the collapse of the AH-1Z and T129 forces Pakistan to reset its attack helicopter plans entirely. Besides evaluating its new options, Pakistan could extend its indigenization drive to cover attack helicopters as well. In this case, an ITAR-free co-production partner could be pursued.

Though it has a proven track-record via the JF-17 and, potentially, Project Azm, a helicopter program with Pakistan is not a lock for AVIC. At IDEAS 2018, Turkish Aerospace was forthright about its eagerness to help Pakistan develop its aviation industry in concert with Turkey. Be it co-development and co-production to investing in Pakistan’s aviation industry, Ankara is a serious competitor to AVIC in this regard.

In this respect, the Turkish Aerospace ATAK-2 could be a viable alternative – and competitor the Z-10ME.

Turkish Aerospace is developing the ATAK-2 as a completely indigenous system. Be it the ATAK-2 airframe, its dynamic components (e.g., rotors), transmission, avionics or even engine, the goal is to have complete control over the platform and, in turn, preclude the risks posed by ITAR and outside party regulations.

However, the ATAK-2 also feeds into Turkish Aerospace’s utility and transport helicopter programs, i.e., the 6-ton T-625 and 10-ton General Purpose Helicopter. The three helicopter platforms are to share the same transmission and dynamic parts and, in turn, ease logistics and maintenance costs. The ATAK-2 and T-625 will also share the same engine, i.e., the TUSAŞ Engine Industries (TEI) TS1400.

Instead of reacting, Pakistan can take a proactive approach to its long-term helicopter needs by partnering with Turkey, which is inviting partners to share in scale, investment and production benefits. Pakistan can take it a step further by aligning the requirements of the Army, Navy and Air Force on common platforms.

For example, Turkish Aerospace told Quwa that the Navy – besides negotiating for the Anka-S drone – is also interested in the progress of the T-625. This could be in reference to the Navy looking for options to replace its legacy Alouette IIIs, but the Army and Ministry of Interior could also explore the same platform to supplant the Bell 412EP, UH-1H and other legacy utility helicopters through the long-term.

There is an opportunity to undertake helicopter production for domestic and overseas needs (via offsets and supply chain integration from Turkey in-exchange for development funding). However, this requires time – the Z-10ME is available today. Thus, if its requirements are urgent, the Army is likely to opt for the Z-10ME (if neither the T129 or AH-1Z are attainable). But a long-term, production-oriented route ought to be considered as well, be it as an alternative or in-tandem with a near-term purchase.

Editor’s Note: Next Quwa Premium article will be published on Friday, 07 December 2018.

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