Warplanes: Where Second Best Is Good Enough

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June 20, 2018: In May 2018 Pakistan agreed to buy 30 ATAK (T129) helicopter gunships from Turkey. The T129 is a license-built version of the Italian A-129. ATAK stands for “Turkish Attack Helicopter” and has become the preferred (by Turkey) name for the T129. The ATAK project was part of a larger effort to create a larger and more diversified Turkish defense industry. So far Turkey has made a lot of progress with this but it has been expensive and often frustrating as Turkish manufacturers tend to overpromise and under deliver. This has caused problems with more successful defense manufacturing partners like Israel and South Korea. Italy took this into account and adapted to the Turkish way of doing things. The means the ATAK works but it is not serious competition for other helicopter gunships.

By early 2018 Turkey had received 35 ATAK gunships. These arrived slowly because until 2017 the final design of the ATAK was still in flux. Turkey received its first T129s in 2014 and these were put to the test. A T129 was first used n combat (against PKK rebels) in 2015. In early 2018 the ATAK had shed the T129 name and was being heavily used in eastern Turkey and northeast Syria where ATAK suffered its first combat loss. One was shot down by Syrian Kurds using a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile.

Turkey has spent over $2 billion in development and production setup costs for the T129. Additional development costs will push total development costs to nearly $3 billion but that will also result in two T129 models; the T129A combat support helicopter and the more advanced T129B multirole helicopter with more capable electronics, similar to the AH-64 Longbow that appeared in the late 1990s. The manufacturing cost of the T120 is nearly $30 and, depending on how many are built, the development cost pushes that up to over $50 million. Turkey wants to buy 90 ATAKs but so far has only ordered fifty with an option to order 40 more. Export sales make it more likely that overall ATAK costs will remain low enough for Turkey to buy another 40 for itself.

In 2014 Turkey received the first nine of sixty T129s it ordered in 2010. Delivery was supposed to take place in 2013, but there were problems (vibration, flight performance, and weight issues) meeting performance specifications. These defects were discovered during the 2012 acceptance tests and before mass production could begin these problems had to be attended to first.

The T129s are of Italian design (as the A-129) and were modified and assembled in Turkey. The T129 is an improved A129 with a more powerful engine (for operating in “hot and high” conditions) and armed with 12 Turkish made UMTAS (similar to Hellfire II) missiles and a 20mm autocannon. The T129 can also use 70mm unguided rockets.

Turkey has been in desperate need of more helicopter gunships since the 1990s. The Turks have found this type of aircraft particularly useful against Kurdish separatists (the PKK) operating in southeastern Turkey. Until the ATAK arrived in sufficient numbers (20-30) Turkey relied on a fleet of about two dozen elderly American AH-1 gunships, which are being worn out because of intense operations against the PKK. Since the 1990s, Turkey bought over 40 AH-1s, but these were all used machines and the Turks worked them hard and many had to be retired. Beginning in 2007, Turkey began looking into acquiring some Italian Mangusta (Mongoose) A129 helicopter gunships as quickly as possible. At one point the Turks were seeking to lease nine A129s from the Italian manufacturer (or anyone else who would make a deal). The Turks also asked the United States for more AH-1W gunships. The U.S. was not willing to make a major effort to get Turkey more AH-1s, not in light of how hostile Turkey had been toward the United States since September 11, 2001. The A129 manufacturer said it would take two years to deliver the new A129s, while the Turks hoped that leased ones could be obtained in less than a year. When this did not work out, the Turks ordered development and manufacture of the T129.

This gunship shortage is a problem of Turkey's own making. In 2007, after over a decade of evaluating, negotiating, haggling, and delays, Turkey decided to buy 50 A129 helicopter gunships, for about $32 million each, with an option to buy another 40 later. That deal then fell apart and was resurrected in 2010, as a plan whereby at least 51 A129s would be built in Turkey (along with some technology transfer). The latest deals waive a lot of the co-production (building A129s in Turkey). The Turks just want the gunships as quickly as possible.

The latest version of the Italian A129 is roughly comparable to the upgraded versions of the U.S. AH-1 (especially the AH-1W SuperCobra). The 5 ton A-129 was the first helicopter gunship designed and built in Western Europe and was introduced in the 1980s. While it has been upgraded frequently, until the T129 deal came along the only customer had been Italy, which bought 60 of them. A few of these saw some action in peacekeeping operations during the 1990s.

The manufacturer, Agusta/Westland, has been desperate to get an export customer and went along with Turkish demands to turn the A129 into the T129/ATAK. Given the delays in selecting a supplier, who was buying, and who was selected, there were probably some bribes involved once the Turks finally selected the A129. Agusta was the only manufacturer to stick with the baffling Turkish procurement process and was finally forced to basically turn over the manufacture of the A129 to the Turks in order to get the sale.

The T129 first flew in 2011, and Turkish firms were found who would develop and deliver the electronics. Despite the problems with the prototypes, Turkey was always confident it could perfect and even export its T129. This would make Turkey one of the few nations that manufacture and sell helicopter gunships. These include America’s AH-64, China’s Z-10/19, the French/German Tiger, and Russian Mil-24/35.

The Pakistan purchase is partly driven by Turkish purchase, in early 2017 of 52 Pakistani MFI-395 Super Mushshak training aircraft. This was the largest export order to date for Pakistani built aircraft. But another reason for Pakistan choosing the A129 was that Pakistan had a situation very similar to Turkey. Pakistan has been fighting Islamic terrorists and separatists since the late 1990s and wanted to upgrade from the American AH-1 type gunships it has long been using. It would have liked to get the larger and more capable American AH-64. This is a 10-ton gunship that entered service in the 1980s and has been the most successful of its kind. Israel uses it, as does India but the Pakistanis really could not afford it. The T129 is a different matter which indicates that the price for Pakistan will be low and that the Turks will have to take a loss on the sale. But if that results in more export sales it is considered a marketing expense.

 


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