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Overview: Turkish Aerospace’s Future Helicopter Programs

In February 2019, Turkish Aerospace/Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) announced that its forthcoming ATAK-2 attack helicopter would be a 10-ton platform.[1] In effect, not only did Turkey opt for a heavyweight platform, but it is possible that the ATAK-2 could share the same turboshaft engine, transmission, and/or dynamic parts technology as Turkey’s forthcoming 10-ton General Utility/Transport Helicopter.

According to Ismail Demir, President of Defense Industries (SSB), the ATAK-2 should materialize by 2024. It will use two turboshaft engines and will deliver 1,200 kg in ordnance. Like its lightweight counterpart, Turkish Aerospace will design the ATAK-2 to operate in hot-temperature and high-altitude environments.[2]

In addition to drawing on Aselsan’s avionics as well as electronic warfare (EW) and defensive aid systems, the ATAK-2 will also use MILDAR millimetre wave (mmW) radar. With a potential load-out of 16 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), the ATAK-2 will deliver a higher offensive impact than the 5-ton ATAK.

However, a critical piece to the ATAK-2 will be its turboshaft engine. Though an apparent roadblock with re-exporting the preceding ATAK’s engine is a factor, Turkey has been banking on its domestic turboshaft engine efforts to bear fruit, with a project in place since at least 2017.

In 2017, the SSB commissioned TUSAS Engine Industries Inc. (TEI) to develop a 1,400 shp engine (TS1400) to power Turkish Aerospace’s 6-ton T625 utility helicopter and, in all likelihood, the T129 ATAK (as an alternative option to the CTS800, which is bound by US export controls under ITAR).

TEI is developing the TS1400 under an eight-year program. The initial development phase should conclude in 2019 and, in turn, progress to manufacturing and testing a prototype by 2023. Turkey intends to see its T625s fly with the TS1400 by 2025. Currently, TEI has 250 engineers on the TS1400 program.[3]

The TS1400 concerns the T625 and, potentially, the ATAK. However, the ATAK-2 – and, by extension, the General-Purpose Helicopter – requires a higher output engine. Thus, TUSAS’ General Manager Dr. Temel Kotil announced in May 2019 that TEI will develop a 2,500 to 3,000 shp engine for those helicopters. But this indigenous engine will not be in place for Turkish Aerospace’s heavier helicopters in the mid-2020s.[4]

Thus, one could expect Turkish Aerospace to source an imported engine platform for its 10-ton helicopter platforms. In a way, Turkey already has one option in place through the T-70, i.e., its licensed production line for Lockheed Martin’s S-70 Black Hawk helicopter. TEI domestically manufactures the General Electric (GE) T700-GE-701D turboshaft engine. It can use this to power its 10-ton helicopters as a stopgap.

However, given its precarious ties with the Washington at present, and the uncertainty around its biggest export order – i.e., 30 T129 ATAKs to Pakistan – due to ITAR, using the T700 might not be tenable. It could put Turkey’s near-term efforts to export its next-generation helicopters (at least before its local engine is ready) on weak footing. An alternative could be to speak to France’s Safran Group.[5]

Interestingly, the Safran option ties into the current state of Pakistan’s T129 order. At IDEAS 2018, Turkish Aerospace told Quwa that the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps (PAA) is to receive its helicopters in 2021. So, technically speaking, there has been no ‘hold up’ as of yet.

According to Turkish Aerospace, the US did not reject the request to sell the CTS800 to Pakistan; but it has not responded to Turkey in the affirmative (or negative). Thus, the request is in limbo. However, as a result of the uncertainty, Turkish Aerospace is reportedly negotiating with Safran for an alternative platform – the Arrano 1A could be the lead option since it is 100% ITAR-free components.[6]

However, an engine change would necessitate additional overhead (for integration and testing), and the PAA will need to trial it again to ensure the ATAK meets its operational requirements. Moreover, Pakistan’s current economic challenges might affect procurement in the near-term, and the T129 – much less a new subvariant of the T129 – could be beyond its fiscal reach at this time.

Ironically, the collision of Turkey’s cold relationship with the US and Pakistan’s economic challenges could be fortuitous in some respects. First, Pakistan could simply wait for the TS1400-equipped T129 and, as a consequence, begin paying for its orders in the mid-2020s (i.e., after current austerity measures). Second, Pakistan could request improvements to the platform, such as additional armour or a top-mounted mmW radar. Third, it approach the improved ATAK as a development and co-production program.

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is tying the entirety of its long-term fighter requirements to Project Azm, with an ITAR-free fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) at its core. Likewise, the Pakistan Navy (PN) has opted to pursue custom designs and, in turn, buy the intellectual property (IP) to ostensibly develop around in the future. Though long-term initiatives, these programs could set the PAF and PN up to source their own solutions (albeit with a combination of imported and local subsystems and technologies).

The Pakistan Army (PA) had started the trend through the al-Khalid main battle tank (MBT), but difficulty with procurement funding and technical challenges, the PA has stalled on that front. In terms of the PAA, the Army has not even considered a development program for helicopters.

The interesting aspect of the TS1400-equipped ATAK is that its value is not restricted to attack helicopters. In fact, the ATAK and T625 will share not only the same engine in the TS1400, but transmission, dynamic components, and some avionics as well. The PAA can standardize its future attack and light utility needs on the same core platform. Likewise, Pakistan can extend the T625 as a utility option to the PN as well as civilian and government users within and outside of Pakistan.

Turkish Aerospace told Quwa that it was open to investing in Pakistan’s aviation industry. An official said that one option could be to set up a maintenance and servicing center for supporting Pakistani and third-party export users. However, Turkish Aerospace noted that it – and the SSB in general – are exploring their options with regards to Kamra Aviation City, among other avenues.

Thus, Pakistan can expand its aviation industry to cover helicopter manufacturing and support provided it executes with a plan, even if the results are restricted to the long-term. The lack of short-term gain can be one of the costs for simplifying procurement for the long-term.

However, the real value of any such program, especially in collaboration with Turkey (or another country) is not just the final product. Rather, the value rests in Turkey’s engine and other critical components work (e.g., the transmission). With the PAF envisioning a potential future where Pakistan manufactures fighter aircraft on a true turnkey basis, joining the TS1400 could be prudent.

The underlying technology for turboshaft engines centers on gas turbines, which also drive turbojets and turbofans. In fact, not only does TEI envision its work on the TS1400 progressing towards its 2,500-3,500 shp programs, but an 8,500 lbf to 9,500 lbf turbofan program as well (for the HürJet trainer). There is both an evolution track and a gradual, long-term timeline. Since Pakistan can apply this technology on multiple project lines (e.g., helicopters, fixed-wing jets, cruise missiles, etc), the PA, PN and PAF can jointly invest.

Ultimately, the repetitive call to work with Turkey sounds trite. However, there are few other countries with such comparable technology and system requirements through the long-term. Moreover, not many other countries are now as willing as Turkey to achieve turnkey capabilities in aviation. Finally, Turkey is tied with costs; it will need economies-of-scale to make long-term production and development viable – it needs a partner. And in that respect, a co-funding partner could accrue concessions.

[1] “National Heavy Attack Helicopter Will Cause Heavy Heavier Casualties.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. 22 February 2019. URL: http://www.milscint.com/tr/milli-agir-taarruz-helikopteri-dusmana-daha-agir-zayiat-verdirecek/?fbclid=IwAR2OJqa7m1EJNU3pgnxr7sjK8tyUUs12hrq2fWCNSqpRuSQWVo2lss9e1cw.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Original Power System TS1400 Turboshaft Engine Developed by TEI’s Seasoned Team of Experts for the T625 Helicopter.” Defence Turkey. Volume. 13. Issue 92. 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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