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Pakistan inks contract for T129 ATAK attack helicopters

On 13 July, the Turkish Undersecretary of Defence Industries (SSM) Ismail Demir announced that Pakistan inked a contract for 30 T129 ATAK attack helicopters from Turkish Aerospace (TA), formerly known Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI).[1] Following the SSM, TA also announced the deal, stating that it is “the largest export in the (sic) Turkish defence history.”[2] The signatures come following at least four years of on-and-off negotiations between Pakistan and Turkey on the ATAK.

Neither the SSM, TA or the Pakistan disclosed specifics regarding the ATAK contract, but Reuters reported that it was priced at $1.5 billion US and is scheduled for completion (i.e. delivery to Pakistan) in five years.[3] Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu Agency states that it is a “large contract package in terms of logistics, spare parts, training and ammunition.”[4] The latter indicates that Roketsan’s Mizrak (UMTAS)-series of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and Cirit laser-guided rockets are being packaged into the program.

The signing concludes the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps’ (PAA) efforts to acquire a new attack helicopter to complement its forthcoming AH-1Z Viper helicopters from Bell Helicopter in the U.S. In 2015, the U.S. had approved the sale of 15 AH-1Z to Pakistan, of which Pakistan had signed onto 12. However, observers are uncertain if the helicopters will be delivered amid the current state of US-Pakistani defence ties.


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The AH-1Z issue notwithstanding, the PAA had evidently intended to maintain a fleet of “heavy” (i.e. the 8-ton AH-1Z) and “light” (i.e. the 5-ton T129) attack helicopters, with the latter optimized for high-altitude operations and usage in hot-temperature environments. Moreover, the PAA also inducted four Mi-35M assault helicopters from Russia, providing it with a dual troop/supply-lift and air attack capability as well. But the T129 will certainly form the backbone of the dedicated attack helicopter fleet.

In terms of the “light” or mainstay attack helicopter requirement, the PAA had evaluated the T129 against the Z-10, developed and produced by Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC) in China.

It is unclear why the PAA did not proceed with the Z-10, especially when cost and financing are lesser obstacles in any big-ticket arms purchase from China. However, the PAA had repeatedly emphasized the need for credible high-altitude close air support (CAS) capability, such as in January when its commander, Major Gen. Nasir D. Shah outlined how its AH-1F/S “cannot be employed effectively in high-altitude operations above 8,000 ft.”[5] It is likely that the T129, which excelled in high-altitude flights during its tests in Pakistan in 2016, was chosen in significant part due to the PAA’s high-altitude requirements.[6]

When TAI was marketing the T129 to Pakistan, the company had repeatedly raised the prospect of parts manufacturing and even assembly at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) as a possibility.[7] However, the SSM, TA or Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) have yet to comment on this issue, though to be fair, neither side has disclosed substantive details about the Pakistan ATAK contract aside from the basics. Nonetheless, co-production of the T129 and, more importantly, an opportunity for PAC to supply services to TA would be of interest to Pakistan from a foreign-currency savings standpoint.


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What is Happening to the AH-1Z?

In terms of official or verifiable information, Bell Helicopter’s Vice President of International Military Sales, Rich Harris, had stated in June 2017 that the first batch of three AH-1Zs would be delivered to Pakistan by the end of 2017.[8] In February 2018, the Pakistan Army’s Military Engineer Services (MES) branch releasing a bid for the construction of infrastructure, i.e. hangar, tarmacs and organizational and intermediate (O/I)-level maintenance facilities, for the AH-1Z. However, observers raised a number of potential red flags or indicators of the U.S. withholding the transfer of the first AH-1Z batch.

The red flags had primarily emanated from a notice posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website in June 2018. Titled, “Period of Performance Extention (sic) for FMS Pakistan Storage Effort”, the bid had called for services to “maintain the aircraft in a preservation state such that they will be able to return to flight following de-preservation.”[9] Based on this bid, there appears to be a stay on the AH-1Z delivery.

However, although the current state of US-Pakistani ties are a cause, they might not be the direct cause, which was the case in the 1990s when the US stayed the delivery of Peace Gate III/IV F-16s to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Rather, much of Pakistan’s slated procurements (at least since 2011) from the US seemed to have been scheduled under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and Coalition Support Fund (CSF), i.e. US aid programs. In other words, Pakistan is reluctant to spend its own national funds on US armaments, but the US itself is not (at least as a matter of stated policy) adverse to selling arms to Pakistan.

The evidence for this was the ill-fated sale of eight new-built Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block-52 in 2016. Originally, the F-16 sale (valued at $700 m) was supposed to have been split between FMF and Pakistan’s national funds, with the latter accounting for $270 m (less than 40%).[10] However, Congress opted to block the FMF component, requiring Pakistan to pay the entirety of the contract from its national funds.[11] But Pakistan opted against the course, effectively signalling that it has no intention of spending national funds (or at least large amounts of it) on US armaments. Moreover, a US embargo would effectively scuttle the T129 sale to Pakistan; the T129’s CTS800 turboshaft engine falls under US trade control restrictions.

Seeing that the Trump administration axed upwards of $1.3 billion US intended aid funding to Pakistan in January, it would not be surprising if the AH-1Z contract was tied to it. Though it is fundamentally a foreign relations issue, the moving factors of the AH-1Z might be due to Pakistan maintaining consistency with its previous policy of not committing sizable national funding on defence items from the US. However, should the AH-1Z deal collapse, it would leave a gap in the PAA’s “heavy” attack helicopter requirement.

Is the T129 Deal a Bridge to Turkish Aerospace’s ATAK-2?

In October 2017, Turkey’s SSM Ismail Demir announced that Turkish Aerospace had begun development of a new – and heavier – ATAK variant, the ATAK-2.[12] Not only will the ATAK-2 bring an increased payload and improved avionics, but it will be based on a common dynamic components platform with TA’s T625 and 10-ton General Purpose Helicopter – i.e. commonality in transmission, rotor and gear-box.[13]

However, with a slated maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 6 tons, the ATAK-2 is unlikely to provide the range and payload capacity of the AH-1Z. Rather, it is a significant iterative update to the T129, but it does not alter the T129’s underlying design of being a lightweight attack helicopter. In fact, Leonardo (i.e. the owner of AgustaWestland, the original designer of the T129 via the A129 Mangusta) is using a new basis – i.e. the AW149 – to co-develop the AW249, which is to have a MTOW close to that of the AH-1Z.[14]

Moreover, one can expect Turkish Aerospace to transition entirely to the ATAK-2 once it is developed and readied for serial production. It is costly to maintain manufacturing infrastructure, especially if it is under-capacity due to a lack of domestic orders. Thus, once the ATAK-2 is ready, it is likely that the ATAK will be out-of-production. If the PAA sticks with Turkish attack helicopters in the long-term, it would likely shift to the ATAK-2 (for additional attack helicopters) in tandem with the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).

Thus, the actual question is not if the PAA would be interested in the ATAK-2, but whether the T129 sets a base for long-term collaboration and co-production between Turkey and Pakistan aviation as a whole.

In 2016 and 2017, both Turkey and Pakistan had hinted to wanting to increase collaboration in aviation. In fact, the previous Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of the PAF, Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, had clearly stated, “We are also collaborating with Turkey for developing a next generation aircraft.”[15] In addition, PAC and TAI had signed a memorandum-of-understanding (MoU) at the 2017 International Defence Exhibition and Fair (IDEF) held in Istanbul, Turkey.[16] Finally, TAI had offered T129-related parts manufacturing to PAC.

Pakistan has traditionally favoured platform maturity in its decision-making. However, importing is a much more significant challenge today than in prior years, especially with big-ticket aviation items. The PAF has opted for a comparatively high-risk avenue in next-generation fighter (NGF) development via Project Azm, and it is doing so for the simple aim of ultimately removing the need to rely on costly foreign suppliers.

Seeing the intended scope of Kamra Aviation City and the reality that the Puma, Bell 412EP, Sea King and Mi-171 helicopters in Pakistan will eventually need to be supplanted, could TA’s vision (i.e. ATAK-2, T625 and the 10-ton GPH) be of interest to Pakistan? Granted, each of these platforms is in development (with the ATAK-2 and GPH in the very early stages), but their fruition could offer Pakistan an option to meet its future needs through local manufacturing (albeit in a workshare format with Turkey).

This would be a relatively uncharacteristic shift by the Pakistan Army, but it might be a necessity. There is value in channeling defence expenditure to the local economy as a stimulus instead of imports, which are a foreign currency drain. Furthermore, it is uncommon to find another country such as Turkey, i.e. with broadly similar needs engaged in development work, but in need of partners – such as Pakistan – to help it scale. Pakistan can leverage that to extract transfer-of-technology and co-production benefits (much in the same manner as European states have done with another through their various consortiums).

[1] Ismail Demir. Twitter. 13 July 2018. URL: https://twitter.com/IsmailDemirSSB/status/1017664835662774273 (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[2] Turkish Aerospace. Twitter. 13 July 2018. URL: https://twitter.com/Tusas_en/status/1017688613889478656 (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[3] “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).

[4] Göksel Yıldırım. “Signed with Pakistan for 30 ATAK helicopters.” Anadolu Agency. 13 July 2018. URL: https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/ekonomi/30-atak-helikopteri-icin-pakistan-ile-imzalar-atildi/1202630 (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[5] Gareth Jennings. “Pakistan evaluating attack helo options.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 31 January 2018. URL: http://www.janes.com/article/77493/pakistan-evaluating-new-attack-helicopter-options (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[6] “T129 ATAK at the Himalayas”. Turkish Aerospace Industries (via MSI Turkish Defence Review). November 2016.

[7] Tony Osborne. “Turkish Aerospace Industries T129 Hunts for Export Orders.” Aviation Week. 21 June 2017. URL: http://aviationweek.com/paris-air-show-2017/turkish-aerospace-industries-t129-hunts-export-orders (Last Accessed: 21 January 2018).

[8] Helen Haxell. “Paris Air Show: Bell pitches to international market.” Shephard Media. 19 June 2017. URL: https://www.shephardmedia.com/news/defence-helicopter/paris-air-show-bell-platforms-international-scope/ (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[9] Tender. “Period of Performance Extention for FMS Pakistan Storage Effort.” Federal Business Opportunities. 06 June 2018. URL: https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=94af9db248b6922c09a5d7165e7ad6b7&tab=core&_cview=0 (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[10] “Pakistan should pay if it wants F-16 deal to go through: US.” Reuters. 02 May 2016. URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-pakistan-planes-idUSKCN0XT1U6 (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[11] Ibid.

[12] “ATAK helicopter comes to ‘heavy brother’.” Anadolu Agency. 03 October 2017. URL: https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/turkiye/atak-helikopterine-agir-abi-geliyor/925920 (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dominic Perry. “Additional nations could join with Italy for new attack helicopter.” Flight Global. 15 November 2017. URL: https://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/additional-nations-could-join-with-italy-for-new-att-443323/ (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[15] Amir Zia. “Two fronts – one mission.” Bol Narratives. 01 April 2017. URL: http://www.bolnarratives.com/two-fronts-one-mission/ (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

[16] “IDEF 2017 Special Coverage Chapter 1 – Turkey and Pakistan’s Agenda: The Super Mushshak and MİLGEM.” MSI Turkish Defence Journal. 07 June 2017. URL: http://www.milscint.com/en/idef-2017-special-coverage-chapter-1-turkey-and-pakistans-agenda-the-super-mushshak-and-milgem/ (Last Accessed: 13 July 2018).

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