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Saturday, August 31, 2019

After delays, the DND finally selects the Philippine Air Force's next Attack Helicopter

Despite earlier reports from our sources that the Philippine Air Force (PAF) has placed the project on hold until a decision is made, it now appears that the Attack Helicopter Acquisition Project under the Horizon 2 Priority Projects is now on the roll again.

In our last blog entry regarding the project, MaxDefense mentioned that while the offer from Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) was the forerunner of the project and was nearing getting the award from the Department of National Defense (DND), the project was instead shelved due to Turkey's issues on possible supply disruptions for parts made or supplied by US-based companies. This was after Turkey proceeded with its procurement of S-400 Triumf long range air defense systems from Russia despite US and NATO warnings.

With Turkey already out of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter Program, it became apparent that Turkey's relations with the US has not fallen as far as what was expected.

So what has this got to do with updates on the PAF's Attack Helicopter Acquisition Project? A lot. 

So which one will become the PAF's next attack helicopter? Apparently the DND has spoken and made the decision this month. Credits to all photos used in this collage.

As the plans for T129 ATAK went down....

It would be remembered that Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) was said to have been declined by the US for an export license of US-made LHTEC T8004A turboshaft engines to power new-built T129 ATAK attack helicopters built by TAI for the Pakistani armed forces.

This prompted fear within the DND and Philippine Air Force that the export license rejection could also affect helicopters that are bound for the Philippines despite the Philippines not having the same problem when its LHTEC-powered AW159 Wildcat anti-submarine helicopters were built by Leonardo for the Philippine Navy.

It was also feared by the Philippine side that the spat between the US/NATO and Turkey over the latter's decision to order the Russian-made S-400 Triumf long range air defense missile system would place Turkey under sanctions based on the US government's Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) since Rosoboronexport, the state agency that processed the deal for the S-400 system is among those in the CAATSA's Black List. 

Turkey's acquisition of the S-400 Triumf air defense system has put it in conflict with the US and NATO. Photo taken from Anadolu Agency.

Other political and economic issues between US and Turkey has also come out as possible concerns that may prompt the US to halt exports of T129 parts to Turkey.

This prompted the DND and PAF to stop awarding the Attack Helicopter Acquisition Project to Turkey's Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), and instead for them to re-evaluate its decision to acquire the T129 ATAK from Turkey. In short, with the spat between the US and Turkey possibly escalating especially with Turkey receiving its ordered S-400 missile systems and US kicking Turkey out of the F-35 program, the PAF's chances of having the T129 ATAK was "practically dead".

With the planned awarding of the project to TAI placed on hold earlier this year, the Philippine Air Force's Technical Working Group (TWG) for the project was asked by the DND to re-evaluate the other offers made. It would be easier and quicker for the PAF to re-evaluate previous offers rather than resetting the entire program.

Although a re-evaluation has been made, the DND and PAF had continuous  discussions with TAI, which was hell-bent on re-assuring the DND and PAF that going for the T129 ATAK is still the best choice.

The companies and products that were re-examined by the PAF include the following:

1. Rosoboronexport of Russia offered to supply the Russian Helicopters Mil Mi-28N Havoc Night Hunter attack helicopter, while also offering the Mil Mi-35 Hind.

2. Bell Helicopters offered refurbished AH-1W Super Cobra formerly used by the US Marine Corps. It has also made an alternative offer using brand new AH-1Z Viper.

3. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. offered the Rudra light armed helicopter, an armed variant of the Dhuruv light utility helicopter made for the Indian armed forces.

4. Airbus Helicopters offered the H145M light armed helicopter, with the latest Airbus HForce platform-interchangeable onboard weapon system. This gives the light helicopter its teeth and a strong reason to be considered after several countries took it in as a cheaper alternative to attack helicopters.

5. Sikorsky Helicopters pitched the S-70i Battlehawk armed helicopter. Sharing the same platform as the S-70i Black Hawk, the Battlehawk features the same performance while being modified with modular systems that transforms the utility helicopter into an assault armed helicopter capable of missions similar to those of an attack helicopter.

6. Leonardo Helicopters pushed with their AW109M light armed helicopter. This is an improved version of the AW109E Power supplied a few years ago for an earlier requirement for "Attack" Helicopters. It features a more powerful engine and better avionics. Apparently, Leonardo also has an option to offer an armed version of the larger AW139M depending on the final specs the PAF would release for the project.

Along the sidelines, TAI continued to pursue the project with their T129 ATAK attack helicopter.

The Airbus H145M with HForce weapon system. If not only specification were changed, the H145M was originally the leading choice made by the PAF for its Attack Helicopter project. Credits to original source of the photo.

The Offers to the PAF and DND:

Interesting pitches from Leonardo and Sikorsky were made, which made use of the issues of commonality with existing and future PAF platforms.

Leonardo insisted that the AW109E in service with the PAF and Philippine Navy Naval Air Wing (PN NAW) use common parts and logistics train with the slightly improved AW109M, which means easier sustainment instead of adding a new model to the fleet. Not to mention affordability as it allows the PAF to acquire up to 24 units with the budget it allocated for the project.

An AW109E Power armed helicopter of the Philippine Air Force. Leonardo is banking on affordability, commonality and ease of integration into existing system to market their AW109M to the PAF since the PAF already uses the AW109E. Credits to original source of photo.

Meanwhile, Sikorsky also used the commonality route on offering the S-70i Battlehawk, which is essentially an upgraded S-70i Black Hawk combat utility helicopter with modular systems to allow it to be converted into a gunship in a short time, and return to utility role afterwards and when needed. Sikorsky believed that for the Philippines that does not have any threat from enemy tanks or armored formations, while being threatened more by lack of enough rotary assets, natural disasters and terrorism, having a modular platform like the Battlehawk makes more sense for now.

The Sikorsky S-70i Battlehawk during a defense expo. Credits to original source of the photo.

Airbus Helicopters' pitch for their H145M was based on the ability by the PAF to field more combat helicopters than more expensive attack helicopters, while being superior to other light armed helicopters like the AW109M and Rudra. Airbus has yet to sell a helicopter to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, despite the H145 in civilian variant ordered already by the Philippine Coast Guard.

India's HAL made use of their affordability, being cheaper than both the AW109M and H145M while offering the same capabilities. MaxDefense sources mentioned that while affordable and promising, there are fears on using the Rudra, which shares the same platform as the Dhuruv light utility helicopter that were involved in serious accidents in the past years involving Indian and non-Indian military units.

Russia's Rosoboronexport's pitch used the improving Philippines-Russia ties, proven Russian technology and weapon systems, and being more affordable than comparable Western equivalents. Russia also mentioned their willingness to provide more to a potential new customer who is unfamiliar with Russian weapon systems. But apparently, PAF prefers to start with something simpler, like a transport or utility helicopter when ordering aircraft from Russia. This is where the interest in the Mil Mi-171Sh comes to mind.

The Mil Mi-28N Havoc Night Hunter during a Russian defense expo. Photo credited to John Yates, taken from his Flick account.

Finally Bell Helicopters anchored their offer on refurbished AH-1W Super Cobras instead of new AH-1Z Vipers. According to MaxDefense sources, Bell Helicopters believed that the PAF may not be able to afford to have a relevant fleet of Vipers and that having the AH-1Ws instead would make more sense and realistically make it more possible for Bell to win the project. 

This is apparently the same reason made by Boeing when they originally offered the AH-64E Apache Guardian to the PAF but did not really made a serious pitch later on.

The Bell AH-1W Super Cobra, this example with the US Marine Corps. Photo taken from / Anthony Osborne.

While these helicopter manufacturers were all using the opportunity again after the PAF and DND has re-opened the opportunity for everyone, it appears that the TWG has already something in mind even before it started re-evaluating its option.

Feedback on the Competing Products:
Let's start on the HAL Rudra. MaxDefense sources mentioned that while being the most affordable in the offerings, there are fears on using the Rudra, which shares the same platform as the HAL Dhuruv light utility helicopter that were involved in serious accidents in the past years involving Indian and non-Indian military units.

The HAL Rudra appears to be a promising offer, but PAF has been cautious considering it shares the platform with the Dhuruv which were involved in accidents in the past. This would put the helicopter's rejection in a similar reason as the PAF's rejection of the KAI Surion for the CUH acquisition project. Credits to original source of photo.

Regarding Leonardo's AW109M, issues were raised on the ability of Leonardo to provide after-sales support, due to the poor service both the PAF and PN-NAW. This has been the issue Leonardo has been getting a year after the PAF received their AW109E Power light armed helicopters a few years ago. 

Issues on Russia's offer for Mil Mi-28N Havoc Night Hunter or even the Mil Mi-35 Hind are more on issues of compatibility and inter-operability with the mostly NATO-standard Armed Forces of the Philippines, and fears of "birthing difficulty" especially for an advanced combat system for a first-time Russian arms user like the PAF. The PAF believes the attack helicopters represent a major asset that they cannot afford doing trials on inter-operability. Another issue raised was CAATSA, which has been discussed thoroughly on MaxDefense posts in the past.

The Bell AH-1Z Viper was too expensive, and even if the PAF gets financial support for the US, it still believes that investing a huge amount of money on attack helicopters would rather be better used in acquiring other needed assets like light combat aircraft and transport aircraft. MaxDefense sources were told that with the PAF's budget, Bell can only provide a maximum of 3 to 4 units, compared to Leonardo's offer of 24 AW109M and Airbus' 20 H145M helicopters.

Thus the top 3 potential replacements to the T129 ATAK attack helicopter were the S-70i Battle Hawk, Bell AH-1W Super Cobra, and Airbus H145M.

The Sikorsky S-70i Battlehawk includes a belly-mounted gun mount that can be aimed at using the pilot's helmet similar to those found in purpose-built attack helicopters. 

While the S-70i Battle Hawk appears to be the best option being brand new, modular, and heavily armed, it appears that the PAF has issues with its selection for the attack helicopter project. Airbus' H145M represents a scaled down version of the S-70i Battle Hawk, being smaller but with the same concept of modularity to become general purpose and not just fixed as a combat helicopter.

But the PAF has made it known that their preference is for a purpose-built attack helicopter. Emphasis was given on agility, speed, "diving" capabilities (something that has bothered MaxDefense since we found out about this), use of a nose-mounted helmet sighted gun, tandem-seating, and heavy armaments.

While the S-70i Battle Hawk has heavy armaments and nose-mounted helmet sighted gun, it fails to meet requirements on speed, flight agility, tandem seating and "diving" capabilities. Meanwhile the Airbus H145M may be more agile than its Sikorsky competitor, it suffers the same issues of not meeting what the PAF is looking for.

So in the end, the last one standing was the refurbished Bell AH-1W Super Cobra.

While all other alternatives to the T129 ATAK were out of the shortlists, only the Bell AH-1W Super Cobra remained in the end. This example is with the US Marine Corps. Photo taken from / Nathan Havercroft.

The refurbished Bell AH-1W Super Cobra offer:

With the offer for refurbished Bell AH-1W Super Cobra appearing to be the best option for the PAF, this too became too hard for the PAF to swallow.

First of, this is the only offer that does not involve brand new assets. These helicopters were originally from the late 1980s to early 1990s which means they are originally more or less 30 years old before refurbishing. 

Secondly, it shares semblance to the upcoming Bell AH-1S Cobra attack helicopters that the PAF is about to receive from the Kingdom of Jordan. Despite being newer and with twin engines compared to its older stablemate, the AH-1W Super Cobra shares several similar features and components.

Bell and some groups within the PAF are using the acquisition of AH-1S Tzefas Cobra from Jordan as a reason to select the AH-1W Super Cobra. Credits to original source of photo.

Thirdly, the US government has expressed its support should the PAF decide to go for the offer of refurbished AH-1W Super Cobras. It has assured also the DND that going for the helicopters, which are being sold under US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) would not be blocked.

And lastly, the AH-1W Super Cobra was among those eyed by the Philippine Air Force as a wish list should the US provide any assistance to the Philippines in terms of excess defense articles.

PAF personnel checks on a US Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra during an exercise in the Philippines. Photo taken from Aiirsource Military's Youtube page. 

But despite these, the most lingering issue is the purchase price. Despite being used old units, they are still expensive.

Based on MaxDefense sources, for the budget of Php13.8 billion for Attack Helicopters, Bell can only offer not more than 8 units. This a strong issue considering the PAF has put premium in considering that other helicopter manufacturers like Russian Helicopters or TAI can offer the same number of brand new attack helicopters and would have been better options if only not meeting certain fixed criteria or issues.

Apparently the US government may add a few more units as part of their assistance but this remains confidential according to our sources.

The DND Makes its Decision:
After receiving the recommendations from the Philippine Air Force TWG, and discussing with different helicopter manufacturers and governments supporting their respective companies, our sources confirmed that the DND, through Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana, has made a decision on what the agency would acquire to be the PAF's next Attack Helicopter.

Based on the revised Acquisition Decision Memorandum released by the DND and signed by Sec. Lorenzana recently, the decision is to proceed with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) offer with still the T129 ATAK attack helicopter.

Also, the project would remain as a Government-to-Government (G2G) deal with the Turkish government, and will proceed as plan based on the discussions made between the two countries since last year.

Apparently, the PAF TWG has not made objections regarding this decision, and has started preparation to support the DND-Bids and Awards Committee in finalizing the documents prior to the release of Notice of Award.

A wooden model of the T129 ATAK attack helicopter as presented to Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana by the Turkish delegation during a defense cooperation agreement meeting last December 2018 in Manila. Credits to original source of photo.

So What Happened??
Not much information was provided to MaxDefense on how the DND came up with the decision. It appears that both the DND and its Turkish counterpart would want things to be hush hush on this matter.

But what MaxDefense has been told is that the Turkish government and Turkish Aerospace Industries has assured the DND and the Philippine Air Force that there will be no problems in securing export licenses for US-made parts and subsystems, including the LHTEC-sourced engines and other avionics. 

So far, even MaxDefense has noted that no reports of CAATSA-related sanctions against Turkey or any Turkish company has been made public yet. While MaxDefense sources also believe the same, this remains to be something that time can answer.

The Turkish government also assured the DND that they will be open to possible use of soft loans to increase the numbers of the PAF's orders, from the current 6 to 8 units based on the PAF's budget, to at least a full squadron with the help of soft loans.

In addition, Turkey has also assured the DND and PAF that they are willing to supply Turkish-made munitions for the T129 ATAK attack helicopters, including the Roketsan UMTAS anti-tank missile and Roketsan CIRIT laser-guided 70mm rockets. It is also possible that the T129 ATAK could be wired to allow the use of the Israeli-made Rafael Spike-ER or Spike-NLOS anti-tank missiles which the Philippine Air Force plans to acquire to arm its Spike-ready AH-1S Tzefas Cobra attack helicopters.

Turkey's CIRIT laser guided rocket made by Roketsan was among those committed by Turkey to be open for sale to the PAF. Photo taken from Roketsan's website.

The question now is, was this the best decision made by the DND for this project? 

Its still a matter of time before anyone, even those from the defense departments of both Turkey and the Philippines, if the US will allow the export of US-made parts for the T129 helicopter, especially the LHTEC T800 series turboshaft engines.

If this fails, the PAF would definitely have huge delays in its Attack Helicopter acquisition project as any plan to reset the project would mean a possible delay of at least 2 more years or more.

Who would have thought that after everything that happened with Turkey, the DND and PAF would still go for the TAI T129 ATAK attack helicopter? Photo credits to Pavel Leuchter, taken from Airplane Pictures. So far this is one of the best photos of the helicopter, if not for the watermarks.

MaxDefense's Opinion - Totally Different from what the PAF has currently in mind:
So far, the decision to get the T129 ATAK attack helicopter was supported by MaxDefense before the issues between Turkey and the US came out. This can be seen on our previous reports where we mentioned our support to the end user's decision to select the T129, as well as Sec. Lorenzana's approval and support for the decision.

But the Turkey-US spat is something that we cannot really set aside. Until a strong confirmation coming from the US guaranteeing their openness to allow Turkey to import US made parts for T129s for the Philippines, anything is possible.

Turkey has not yet made any developments to use an alternative engine from France, nor has made any strong progress on using turboshaft engines it is developing locally for the T129 and other Turkish-made helicopters.

MaxDefense also believes that the offer made by Bell for refurbished Super Cobras was too expensive. Since these are old helicopters, we were hoping that the US would even be offering them cheap to allies like the Philippines.

Russia's Mil Mi-28N seems to be the best alternative in terms of affordability, firepower and availability but the issues of interoperability and compatibility with existing AFP systems, as well as interoperability with allies like the US and partners like Japan and Australia would be an issue later on. Then there's CAATSA.

Honestly, MaxDefense believes that the Philippine Air Force's 15th Strike Wing should move away from Attack Helicopters and let the Philippine Army (PA) have such assets. Instead, MaxDefense believes that the 15th Strike Wing should look far ahead, away from just providing local close air support using short range slow aircraft, and instead look at the possibility of acquiring strike aircraft for territorial defense.

The PAF 15th Strike Wing should look beyond and instead acquire light combat aircraft capable of anti-shipping missions like the FA-50 Fighting Eagle and Tejas Mk1. Both aircraft should be armed with air-launched anti-ship missiles, while Attack Helicopter acquisitions should be made by the Philippine Army instead. Credits to original source of photo.

MaxDefense believes that the 15th Strike Wing would better of with jet aircraft capable of anti-shipping missions using air-launched anti-ship missiles in support of the Philippine Navy. Affordable surface attack aircraft like the KAI FA-50PH Fighting Eagle, or even other light combat aircraft in the market like the HAL Tejas Mk.1 and Mk.1A with anti-shipping capability using Brahmos NG air-launched missiles are better alternatives to attack helicopters. For Php13.8 billion, MaxDefense believes that the unit can have at least 6 light combat aircraft each armed with 2 air-launched anti-ship missiles and a few more extra rounds, plus ILS and support requirements. 

With both South Korea and India willing to assist the Philippines, it is possible to have both countries help to allow the PAF to acquire aircraft and anti-ship missiles. An example could be the BrahMos NG air-launched missile, which can be equipped on the Tejas Mk.1 or Mk.1A and on the FA-50PH, in the later's case after upgrades allowing such capability.

The BrahMos NG, carried by affordable jet powered light combat aircraft like the FA-50 or Tejas Mk1 are examples of what the PAF should have with the 15th Strike Wing instead of attack helicopters

Meanwhile, MaxDefense believes that the Philippine Army must be the one operating attack helicopters, especially that its plan to elevate its Aviation Battalion into a regiment is becoming more possible than ever.

Having the PA operate attack helicopters makes more sense since they do not have to rely on the PAF for close air support especially on crucial moments where coordination between two separate service branches could delay decision making and deployment.

First posted on 31 August 2019
Copyright MaxDefense Philippines


  1. I just hope that there will be no more problem with US made engine supply, and if that so this will be a very good lift for PAF and the whole AFP, sir how many unit in total? and yes I agree with you that PA should have the attack helicopter...

  2. I agree with you, its better for PAF to not to focus on acquiring AHs and instead let the PA have it as normally as you have mentioned, delays comes in when air support is needed by PA.

  3. I hope it will not face any problem and US would allow the sale of those Engines.

  4. As long as they’re not “battle taxis” i hope we’ll get spares if we needed it

  5. This project is pretty intense, in fact one one of the most intense I've ever read. Most of the companies are insistent for the PAF to choose their products. Companies got screwed over by geopolitics, lack of reliable service, integration into PAF, doubts over quality and lastly by a document that specifically states PAF's desired product.

  6. Totally agree with your analysis that PAF should concentrate on fighter aircraft and let the PA have the attack helicopters.

  7. Hope they get T129 soon!

  8. I believe that the US-Turkey CAATSA issue is only confined in the F-35 deal, and I believe both parties will not take any risk to escalate the issue as it will have greater repercussions in the strategic defense of europe and of middle east on the side of US/West, and economically and political stability on the side of Turkey. I believe DND saw the big picture here and I am glad they pushed through with this project.

  9. Attack Helicopters should really be with the Army. I think PA should go with S70i Battlehawks and AH6 little birds combination. A heavily armed AH6 can make a strong punch.

  10. Sir Max I do believe your assessment on this is really good and more importantly better alternative on PA, PAF and DND for military combat situations and operations its kinda thinking of how the DND and AFP handles the its organisation and CMO planning operations despite of meager support in terms of financial aspects of its modernisation glad that we have blogspot like yours that our kababayan understand statusand position of of our AFP in dealings in this kind of matter saludo Sir Max!!!

  11. This is easy, like MAX already pointed out, fixed wing ground attack by the Air Force only and rotary wing ground attack exclusively by the Army.

  12. IMO, the Philippines should look into either the MI-35 or the Euro tiger helicopter.

  13. You nailed it to the point 3M! The US Army and even their Marine Corps operates it's own helicopter wings to support their respective ground units. Perhaps it is time for the AFP to shed the old concept that everything flying belongs to the Air Force and the the Army are only limited to the ground. Even the Philippine Navy now has it's helicopters and maritime patrol planes.

  14. T129 attack is smart option for the DND because it is brand new and capable enough to deliver its mission,tested and guaranteed.if US government wanted to help improve it's allies like the philippines they just simply sell their AH 1Z viper in low price since we're allied or subsidize the original price even 60/40.

  15. I agree with you on the concept of fixed wing aircraft for the PAF and rotary wing assets for the PA.

    Another aspect our AFP has to improve on is preventive maintenance and Service Life Extension Programs to allow old assets to continue to operate effectively. This would have the advantage of more air assets at a cheaper price while having familiarity with existing air frames. The U.S. has several of these programs to extend useful life of existing equipment like "re-engining" their Boeing 707 platforms.

    Smaller armed forces like Morocco and Brazil still use the F5, albeit modernized with the latest avionics, armament, and even in-flight refueling capabilities...I do not see why we cannot revive and upgrade our existing fleet of Freedom Fighters with new avionics and glass cockpits to accommodate modern armaments. Of course, the Brazilian Air Force has the advantage of having the Brazilian plane mfr Embraer by its side but if their air force, with its far bigger resources, finds it prudent to modernize its existing fleet of F5s to F5-EM standards, instead of buying new types of fighter jets, I don't see why the AFP can't do the same.

  16. aka ho hummm wait and see again. I don't think US will allow the sale of the engines as they are going to be loaded to the T129s. The purchase from Turkey would be akin to support their cause by adding to the earnings for Turkey, US would say instead of them paying Turkey why don't we get what PH is offering and give them a helio although less capable than the T129. Why not we instead purchase from Leonardo-Finmeccanica the A129 from Italy? Or stick with the newer AH-1Z cobra although taking a knee for less helicopters instead of 8 based on the contract of a A129. Like may be half will do. Maybe take the AH-1W but need to upgrade based on local technology(which we dont have but will be forced to take up) this can jumpstart our own ingenious tech.


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