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Pakistan May Sign T129 ATAK Attack Helicopter Contract Soon

Speaking to Turkey’s state-owned TRT Haber news channel in early May[1], Turkey’s Undersecretary of Defence Industries (SSM) Dr. İsmail Demir stated that a much-anticipated contract for the sale of Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) T129 ATAK attack helicopters to Pakistan could be inked in the coming weeks.

“In Pakistan, we will have important developments related to the export of ships and attack helicopters. God Willing, we will have news about the ATAK helicopter sale to Pakistan next week”, Demir told TRT.[2]

In subsequent statements to TRT, Demir outlined that the Pakistani programs – which include both the ATAK and the MILGEM Ada-class anti-submarine warfare (ASW) corvette – were contingent on a credit-line to back both deals. The MILGEM line has been finalized, while a loan for the ATAK is in the process of being made or finalized.[3] However, it appears that credit has tentatively been settled, the matter is now proceeding to inking the contracts and bringing the programs to fruition.

Pakistan reportedly began contract negotiations for 30 T129s in June 2017.[4] Pakistan’s Minister of Defence Production (MoDP) confirmed the negotiations in November 2017, stating that the issue was “90 percent complete”.[5] The program also appears to include some transfer-of-technology.

At the 2018 IQPC Military Helicopter Conference, the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps’ (PAA) Major Gen. Nasir D. Shah stated that depot-level maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) would be a must for the PAA’s next mainstay attack helicopter.[6] However, TAI reportedly offered component manufacturing work to Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) as well.[7]

Building High-Altitude Close Air Support Capabilities

The PAA had evaluated the T129 in June 2016. In addition to testing the helicopter’s endurance and status in high-temperature environments, the PAA also flew the ATAK at 14,000 ft to test its high-altitude flight.[8] It appears that one of the reasons for pursuing the T129 was to build a high-altitude attack capability. The current AH-1F/S fleet is insufficient for the task, with the PAA citing “creaks and shakes” as an issue when flying the legacy Cobras at those altitudes.[9] In fact, Maj. Gen. Shah himself outlined that the Cobras could not fly above 8,000 ft, thus indicating that the PAA required an attack helicopter that could do so.[10] Quwa Premium has an in-depth look at the ATAK evaluation and selection process in February’s Monthly Report.

Interestingly, the ATAK would essentially complete an ongoing effort to modernize the high-altitude force: the PAA has already switched from operating the SA315 Lama to the Airbus Helicopters H125M[11], which it in fact employed for a high-altitude search-and-rescue (SAR) mission in January 2018.[12] The PAA has also procured at least one Leonardo AW139 utility helicopter, which was also – as part of the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) trials – tested for its high-altitude performance.[13]

The T129, H125M and AW139 can plausibly come together to form a complete high-altitude aviation force for attack, scouting, SAR and utility (this is discussed in detail in the Quwa Premium article, “Pakistan Army Aviation’s High-Altitude Capabilities”). The aim is unclear, though a robust high-altitude aviation force will be of utility in the Northern Areas and Kashmir. In this case, Pakistan would basically deploy the T129 in the same manner the Indian Army and Indian Air Force would the Light Combat Helicopter.

The Engine Constraint

Though TAI has export licenses for the ATAK’s CTS800 turboshaft engine, the instability of Pakistan-US ties – particularly in terms of defence and security cooperation – could be a constraint to any T129 sale to the Pakistan Army. Besides an alternative non-ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) variant of the CTS800 (which Rolls-Royce was reportedly slated to develop in 2016[14]), the only other option is the Turkish Engine Industries (TEI) turboshaft program. However, it would be seven to eight years before that engine can possibly enter serial production, if not longer (due to testing and certification).

It appears that the PAA will pursue the T129 as-is. In fact, a contrarian view would not make sense as the PAA had tested – and accepted – the T129’s performance with its existing engine. To wait for a new engine would mean resetting the entire process (of testing and negotiating) for an unknown entity. Granted, the intended platform for the TEI engine – i.e. ATAK-2 – would offer increased payload. However, the ATAK-2 is not a factor today and the current ATAK contract is geared for procuring helicopters, not development for a new platform. Thus, it would be irrelevant for the current procurement tranche.

In 2015 and 2016, the PAA also evaluated the Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC) Z-10. China had sent three Z-10s to Pakistan for trials in 2015, though the current status of this program is unclear, it will likely be the contingency option should the T129 program collapse. That said, a case can be made that the current state of bilateral defence relations between the US and Pakistan might not be a factor.

Much of the focus appears to be on withholding military aid and, potentially, the supply of subsidized arms to Pakistan. But the US has not yet signalled an intent to bar Pakistan from procuring ITAR-bound equipment from a third-party source such as Turkey. However, this is a space that should be watched as the T129 program potentially progresses in material terms in the coming years. To protect itself from such a scenario, Pakistan could look to tie-in an alternative turboshaft program to its purchase on a contingency basis. The non-ITAR variant of the CTS800 would be a natural powerplant as it would be a direct variant of the original CTS800 and, potentially, carry forward the key performance attributes.

Foundation for a Partnership?

On the surface, this contract appears to be a standard purchase. Pakistan is seeking 30 helicopters with a set of ToT – e.g. depot-level MRO and possibly some parts manufacturing at PAC – with a loan. But it is no secret that Turkey is accustomed to selling its defence products with offsets and commercial partnerships.

Offsets is basically the process of spending a portion of a contract’s price in the buying country’s economy. In many cases, original equipment manufacturers (OEM) will establish or jointly-raise subsidiaries in the buying country to implement the contract. For example, in India Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) and Boeing jointly-own production sites in India to manufacture aerostructures and parts for both India and third-party buyers. On the surface, the benefits of offsets include keeping foreign currency within the buying country, generating local employment and supporting advanced technology exports. The benefits and drawbacks of offsets were discussed in detail in an earlier Quwa Premium article, “Pakistan’s Defence Industry: Constructing a Domestic Marketplace and Examining Offsets”.

Pakistan has an official offset policy that requires contracts of more than $15 million US to spend 30% of the contract price in Pakistan.[15] Despite being a relatively high-profile market for Turkish defence goods, Pakistan has not figured at all in talk about offsets and partnerships.

One can speculate on why this is the case, but it would ultimately point towards one of two (or both) issues. First, Turkey does not sense that there is enough business opportunity in Pakistan’s private sector to justify investment in private defence suppliers in the country. Second, Pakistan is simply uninterested in cultivating an environment that would be conducive for private investment and enterprises. However, a relatively small proportion of the deal could flow into offsets in areas with potential, namely electronics production for the T129’s electro-optical equipment and avionics. It would be modest, but this would be a plausible and mutually low-risk option to at least pilot offsets in Pakistan.

If a long-term partnership is being sought, it would – at best – be a standard-fare joint-investment in one of Turkey’s forthcoming programs involving TAI and PAC. In other words, PAC would become a co-owner of a new platform’s intellectual property and, in-exchange for its investment, exact a workshare deal with TAI on that new program. There has been talk on the part of both Turkish and Pakistani officials about the TFX next-generation fighter program. However, given the high-cost of the program, the presence of the British and Pakistan’s own Project Azm, the TFX is an unlikely factor.[16],[17]

On the other hand, if there could be talk in both sides about the TFX, then the ATAK-2 and TAI’s 10-ton general purpose helicopter should be plausible as well. In fact, the 10-ton helicopter has a rational basis in that Pakistan could enter the program with the aim of replacing its Puma, Sea King and Mi-171 in the long-term through a domestically produced or co-produced design instead of just new imports. TAI’s 10-ton helicopter is also a long-term factor, which should give Pakistan space to stage incremental payments into the program and perhaps utilize the T129 as a means to build capacity for helicopter production work ahead of a next-generation medium-to-heavy transport helicopter.

[1] Interview with Dr. İsmail Demir, Undersecretary of Defence Industries (SSM). 09 May 2018. Statements are in Turkish. URL:

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The eyes of the world are in the Turkish defense industry”. TRT Haber. 08 May 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 10 May 2018).

[4] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan on verge of ordering TAI T129 ATAK.” Mönch Verlagsgesellschaft mbH. 22 June 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 10 May 2018).

[5] Sena Guler. “Pakistan looks for helicopters, naval ships from Turkey.” Anadolu Agency. 25 November 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 January 2018).

[6] Gareth Jennings. “Pakistan evaluating new attack helicopter options”. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 31 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 10 May 2018).

[7] Alan Warnes. 01 June 2017. Twitter. URL: Last accessed: 21 January 2018.

[8]  “TAI T129 ATAK at the Himalayas.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. November 2016. Issue 31.

[9] Alan Warnes. “Pakistan Army Aviation: Special Report 2013”. Tangent Link. 2013

[10] Jennings. “Pakistan evaluating new attack helicopter options”. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 2018.

[11] Warnes. Tangent Link. 2013.

[12] Press Release. “Two H125s help rescue climber in Pakistan.” Airbus Helicopters. 07 February 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 14 February 2018).

[13] “The AW139 completed the hot & high tests in Pakistan.” Leonardo (via HeliPress). 26 July 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 February 2018).

[14] Dominic Perry. “LHTEC aims for Turkish assembly of CTS800 engine”. Flight Global. 13 May 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 10 May 2018).

[15] “Defence Offset Policy.” Directorate General Defence Purchase (DGDP) Pakistan. Accessed: 03 December 2017. URL:

[16]  “TAI Counting Down Days for ATAK.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. January 2017. Issue. 40

[17] Birol Tekince. “IDEAS serves as a platform to portray a positive and realistic image of Pakistan.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. November 2016. Issue. 31.

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