Procurement: Engine Problems

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April 15, 2021: In March 2021 Turkey announced that it was developing a new helicopter gunship, the T929, based on the existing, but smaller, T129. The T929 will use engines from Ukraine, a country that has often sold military tech to Turkey when such equipment was not available from American or European suppliers. The 11-ton T929 is comparable with the American AH-64, is not expected to make its first flight until 2024, and won’t enter service until the end of the decade. Turkey proved it was capable of building a version of the smaller (4.6 ton) Italian A129 gunship in Turkey as the ATAK T129. In 2007 Turkey obtained a manufacturing license to build the T129 and export it. That export license did not cover the engines, which Italy did not build but imported from am Anglo-American manufacturer. As such the U.S. government could block any use of these engines in T129s Turkey wanted to export.

This became a problem after 2018 when Pakistan agreed to buy 30 T129 helicopter gunships from Turkey. That deal is being held up because of disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey. In short, the U.S. has refused to approve the export license for the CTS800 engines that power the ATAK gunships. While substitute engines can be obtained from France, Ukraine, Poland or a few other countries, modifying the ATAK to handle a similar, but not identical, engine would delay getting the ATAK gunships operational. The helicopters, minus the engines, have already been delivered to Pakistan. Turkey is developing an engine that could replace the CTS800 engine but it is not ready yet and may take years to complete. Meanwhile Pakistan has stood by Turkey and extended the delivery deadline for the engines several times but the current deadline is 2021 and Turkey has assured Pakistan that they will have a replacement engine ready. That is optimistic and one reason Turkey sought larger engines from Ukraine for the new T929.

The T129 was supposed to enter service in 2010 but that was delayed until 2014 because of technical problems. So far Turkey has built sixty. The Pakistan purchase is partly driven by the 2018 Turkish purchase of 52 Pakistani MFI-395 Super Mushshak training aircraft. This was the largest export order to date for Pakistani built aircraft. In response to the MFI-395 sale to Turkey, Pakistan agreed to pay about $1.5 billion for the T129s in a deal that will include training, spare parts and technical support. Failure to complete this deal will be embarrassing for both Turkey and Pakistan.

The Italian A129 is roughly comparable to the upgraded versions of the U.S. AH-1, especially the AH-1W SuperCobra. The 4.6-ton A-129 was the first helicopter gunship designed and built in Western Europe and first flew in the 1980s but was not ready for service until the 1990s. While it has been upgraded frequently, for a long time the only customer was Italy, which bought 60 of them.

A 2012 upgrade produced the A129D, which had advanced features first found on the AH-64. These include Toplite; a longer (by about 50 percent) range targeting radar and optical system with zoom that allows the A129D weapons operator to spot targets for the A129Ds new Spike ER (range 8 kilometers) missiles or laser guided missiles or bombs from aircraft above (via the laser designator on the A129D). Toplite also enabled the A129D to fly in any weather, day or night. In 2015 Italy sent some of its A129Ds to serve in Afghanistan, where they performed well.

 


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