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Movement in Pakistan Army Aviation’s Procurement Efforts

T129 ATAK Updates

According to Turkish Aerospace, the PAA’s order for 30 T129 ATAK attack helicopters is proceeding – the OEM aims to secure export licenses “in the first months of 2019” and deliver the first batch in late 2020.

This is a longer timeline than the one outlined by Turkish Aerospace in July 2018, i.e., “less than a year.”

The $1.5 billion US contract is to be paid over a 10-year term. According to Defence Turkey, Pakistan had submitted its down payment. It appears that Turkish Aerospace is awaiting for the US to approve of third-party transfers of the LHTEC (Light Helicopter Turbine Engine Company) CTS800 turboshaft engine.

Though Turkish Aerospace stated that it does not expect the engines to run into regulatory trouble, it has reportedly begun negotiations with France’s Safran Group for an alternative turboshaft engine.

The PAA’s first 10 T129s will be T129B Block-I of identical configuration to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK)’s ATAKs. The next 20 will be Block-IIs which, like the TSK’s ATAK Block-IIs, will utilize electronic warfare (EW) suites with active radio jamming along with other self-protection measures.

To the PAA, the T129 will be a significant qualitative jump.

The PAA’s existing AH-1F/S Cobras do not possess the same level of electronics — especially in terms of sensors and self-protection system – nor do its TOW wire-guided ATGMs offer as much operational range and flexibility as the L-UMTAS, which is the form the mainstay of the PAA’s ATAK inventory.

Roketsan L-UMTAS

As per Roketsan’s Market Development and PR Director, Hüdai Özdamar, the PAA selected the company’s L-UMTAS ATGM. The L-UMTAS is the laser-guided version of the UMTAS long-range ATGM.

Equipped with a tandem, high-energy warhead (or high-explosive, blast fragmentation warhead), the L-UMTAS has a range of up to 8,000 m. It uses a semi-active laser-homing (SALH) seeker, which requires the ATAK’s electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) turret to illuminate or “lase” the target until impact.

Roketsan also offers a ‘fire-and-forget’ variant of the UMTAS with top-attack capability. However, it is not clear if the PAA will procure this version as well, though it would make for a valuable anti-armour weapon.

Interestingly, the T129 only forms one part of the Pakistan Army’s ATGM requirements. Roketsan says it is also in talks to sell its medium-range OMTAS ATGM.

The OMTAS does have top-attack capability, but it is also shorter in range at 4,000 m. It is meant for use from fixed tripods, vehicles, and remotely-operated turrets. It appears that the OMTAS issue is in its early stages – the Pakistan Army has yet to test the missiles, much less begin formal negotiations.

However, this could emerge as a significant order, and while a separate issue in one sense, equipping the infantry with a new ATGM could feed into the Army’s efforts to build air assault capabilities.

Pakistan to Increase Mi-35M Fleet to 9

The Mi-35Ms constitute one aspect to the Pakistan Army’s air assault development efforts.

Having taken delivery of 4 helicopters in 2018, Pakistan reportedly ordered another 5 Mi-35Ms.

The PAA reportedly has a scope of up to 20 Mi-35Ms, and it appears to be proceeding with a plan to order them gradually in small batches. A timeframe as to when this follow-on batch is to arrive was not provided.

Developing Air Assault Capabilities

The Mi-35M is a multi-faceted system. First, it can be armed with laser-guided ATGMs, thus providing with an attack capability similar to that of the ATAK. Second, it can ferry 8 paratroopers in its cabin and up to 2,400 kg in cargo externally through a sling. In effect, it can undertake insertion and extraction operations, attack targets, and provide logistics support – but it cannot exceed in any one of those capabilities.

The Mi-35M will not perform attack operations better than the ATAK, nor it will it be as useful as a troop or logistics transport as the Mi-171. Pakistan procured it to perform specific or niche tasks, and the limited quantitative scope is indicative of that. Granted, this is not always a cost-effective route, but thanks to the Mi-35M’s commonality with the Mi-171 (e.g., engine), it is an affordable luxury.

Of the Mi-35M’s intended roles, supporting special forces operations is likely the leading one. But for the Pakistan Army to develop wide-scale air assault capabilities, it will need large numbers of specialist attack and transport helicopters. The latter are especially critical if specially trained troops – e.g., those from the Light Commando Battalions (LCB) – are to be air lifted in numbers and equipment, such as ATGMs.

There is one LCB assigned to each Corps. The actual number of LCBs is not official, but a generic estimate would put them (based on nine Corps) at 2,700 to 7,200 troops. Granted, only a subset of those will likely be marked for air assault operations, and even fewer for helicopter-based paratrooper missions.

However, if the intention is to have 1,000 light commandos (paratrooper and regular alike) on standby with dedicated air lift (i.e., letting the Army deploy all 1,000 of them in one sortie), the PAA would need to dedicate approximately 27 Mi-171-class (13-ton) helicopters or 50 NH-90 (10-ton) helicopters. One can favour the 13-ton class as a means to maintain fewer aircraft, and perhaps even a 20-ton-plus heavy-lift.

Kommersant reported that Pakistan briefly engaged Russia about “several Mi-26T” heavy-lift helicopters.

The Mi-26T would represent CH-47 Chinook-like capabilities in terms of troop and equipment transport, but even if available, it is unlikely Pakistan could procure more than a handful. Thus, a boost in the 10-ton to 13-ton category of medium-lift helicopters is necessary – if not for expansion, then certainly to supplant aging platforms and to ensure a credible airlift capability is in place through the long-term.

A Puma Replacement?

The AS330 Puma is among the PAA’s mainstay transport helicopters, but also a legacy platform. Procured in the 1970s and 1980s and with no ongoing production line to provide spare parts and replace attrition aircraft, it is unlikely that the Puma will factor into the long-term.

Interestingly, at 7-tons, the PAA already procured a new and directly comparable platform in the AW139. However, there are only one or two such aircraft in the Army, the AW139 has primarily been a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) project to supplant its Alouette IIIs in the search-and-rescue (SAR) role.

Today, the new-generation helicopters that take on the Puma’s role are in the 10-13-ton category – the NH-90 Tactical Troop Transport (TTH), H225M Cougar, and S-70 Blackhawk are examples. However, these are costly platforms, with the S-70 having the added issue of using US technology. Note, if not for murky ties with the US, Pakistan could have pushed for surplus, refurbished UH-60s and CH-47s.

With the Pakistan Navy (PN) also seeking “modern multi-function helicopters” and the PAF developing its combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) capabilities, Pakistan has an opportunity to (1) standardize on a single, common platform and (2) support the Aviation City effort with helicopter production.

Arguably, the best method of acquiring a valuable domestic production element is through buying equity in a helicopter project. Like the JF-17, this would mean splitting the development overhead with a partner and, in turn, sharing production wherein both partners are involved in the supply of all units.

The prospective partner that bests fits this bill is Turkey. Turkish Aerospace has a 10-ton general purpose helicopter program in development. However, at the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), the company told Quwa that it was eager to invest in Pakistan’s aviation sector. The idea would be to set Pakistan up as a helicopter maintenance and support hub for nearby third-party sales, especially to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Thus, the receptiveness is genuine, not theoretical.

The alternative, which is valid from a cost and feasibility standpoint, is to import off-the-shelf from China.

It is possible that the Z-18 and Z-20 will join AVIC’s (Aviation Industry Corporation of China) export catalog, and with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) scale, the cost will be competitive, and support guaranteed. One might view the ATAK as an indicator of China not being a lock, but unlike the Turkish 10-ton helicopter the Chinese have two working platforms which, in time, will be ready for tests.

It is unlikely that Europe would be a factor for the Army – the quantitative requirements make the NH-90 et. al cost prohibitive. However, the PN may opt for the NH-90 or AW101. The PN needs fewer aircraft, so the high unit cost of these aircraft can be hidden in a comparatively lower total cost. This prospect would also end the scope of a standardized, tri-services helicopter.

Moreover, the apparent collapse of the AH-1Z program has left a deficit in the Army’s attack helicopter needs. The AH-1Z was to form one-third of the fleet and serve as the heavyweight option.

The latter may not be doable due to the scarcity of options – only Russia has serviceable offerings. But the need to build the attack helicopter fleet to support close air support (CAS), air assault, and anti-armour operations offers Turkey and China an opportunity to offer the ATAK-2 and Z-10ME, respectively.

In fact, both countries can package attack and transport helicopters together. For Pakistan, one is a higher risk option that can result in valuable industrial benefits in the long-term, and the other is an increasingly mature and reliably sourced option.

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