Turkey Finally Lands Its Attack HelicoptersMar 28, 2012 08:00 UTC by Defense Industry Daily staff
Turkey has been looking to modernize its attack helicopter fleet since the mid-1990s, but the process has mostly served as an object lesson in how not to buy defense equipment. This competition faced many difficulties; after numerous snafus, technology transfer and production issues, and canceled competitions, all 3 invited American manufacturers had abandoned the competition entirely.
Even the “final” round seemed imperiled, following reports of the Turkish military’s deep dissatisfaction with the choices; nevertheless, the competition survived long enough to pick a “winner”: an updated version of the A129 Mangusta. Now, signed industrial arrangements contracts with AgustaWestland allow the 12-year program to move forward at last. But Turkey didn’t just buy helicopters – they bought the model. Lock, stock, and rotor.
Program and Finalists
Beginning With An Own Goal in Mind
At present, Turkey’s attack helicopter fleet is made of its 6 remaining AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters, and about 20-23 earlier model AH-1 Cobras. The earlier model Cobras lack some useful modern capabilities. Worse, low numbers and age-related availability issues are straining the fleet’s capacity, making operations in Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish regions more difficult.
The new AH-1Z had come out on top in a previous replacement competition, but 4 years of negotiations with Bell Helicopter to jointly produce the AH-1Z Super Cobra failed in 2004, over major price differences and licensing demands.
The Turkish SSM responded by opening a fresh international competition in February 2005, but did so in a way that magnified the problems again rather than solving them. They were immediately confronted by serious objections from global manufacturers, which forced the SSM to change the RFP in May 2005. Even then, Bell Helicopter and Boeing looked at Turkish demands, and dropped out.
Defense Minister Gonul made the Turkish perspective clear long ago when he noted that “the goal is to co-produce the helicopters, not to buy them off the shelf.” The Houston Chronicle reported that bidding rules also included full access to the aircraft’s specific software codes, and a written guarantee from the provider’s government that there would be no political obstacles to Turkish exports of the licensed helicopters.
In July 2006, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul announced that Turkey would continue talks with Denel of South Africa (AH-2A Rooivalk) and Agusta Aerospace of Italy (A129 International) for Turkey’s Land Forces Command’s Tactical Reconnaissance & Attack Helicopter (ATAK) Project. The Franco-German EADS Eurocopter (Tiger) and Kamov of Russia (Ka-50-2 Erdogan with IAI) were eliminated.
Neither of the finalists had been exported before, and at the time they were competing for co-production of 30 helicopters with options for another 20 more. That projected $1.6 billion contract was still well short of the 91 attack helicopters originally called for when the program began. Still, it was progress. In the end, a contract was signed in September 2007 for 51 “T129 ATAK” helicopters from AgustaWestland, plus another 41 on option under the same terms. Some of those options were exercised in 2010, when Turkey ordered 9 “basic model” T129s to reinforce its dwindling attack helicopter fleet.
Turkish Aerospace Industries is the prime contractor. Aselsan and AgustaWestland will be the subcontractors, under a collaboration agreement in which TAI shares ownership of intellectual property rights for the new A129 configuration with AgustaWestland. TAI will also become the sole source for the production of the whole fuselage, including final assembly and flight operations, and will be responsible for marketing the “T-129 attack helicopters” to the world.
T129: The Winner
The A129 Mangusta (trans. “Mongoose”) entered service with the Italian Army in 1989; AgustaWestland offered it as a base for the Franco-German Tiger partnership, but cooperation was declined in favor of a Franco-German R&D program. The current Italian service inventory is 60 machines, 15 of which are the more modern A129 International/AW129 standard with uprated engines (LHTEC replaced earlier Rolls Royce Gem) and rotors (5-bladed vs. 4), plus new weapons, avionics, and defensive systems. The other 45 Italian A129 CBT helicopters received rotor, transmission, weapon, defensive, and electronics upgrades under a multi-year contract signed in 2002.
This A129 family is notable for their low frontal profile, and offer a good mix of surveillance, gun and missile capabilities. A mast-mounted sight offers the potential for further improvements, but the type had not been successful in export competitions before the 2007 Turkish order. The A129 has seen service with Italian forces in Angola, Macedonia, Somalia, and Iraq.
Like the A129I, the Turkish T129 is powered by 2 Rolls Royce/ Honeywell LHTEC CTS800-4A turboshafts, each generating 1,361 shp. They can drive the helicopter to speeds of 269 kph/ 145 kts, and allow hover out of ground effect to 10,000 feet. Endurance is about 3 hours, with a maximum range of 561 km/ 303 nm.
The Turkish ASELFLIR 300T will replace the AW129′s Honeywell surveillance and targeting systems. The helicopter always has its 3-barreled 20mm chin turret, and certified weapons for its 4 side pylons include its 12.7mm machine gun pods, 70mm unguided Hydra and guided Cirit rockets, anti-tank missiles (TOW, Spike-ER, Hellfire), and Air-to-Air Missiles (Stinger, Mistral). Turkey is also working to develop and then certify its own UMTAS/LRAT anti-tank missile for the T129.
Contracts & Key Events
April 17/13: South Korea loss. South Korea announces that the AH-64E Apache Guardian has beaten the AH-1Z Viper and T-129 ATAK helicopters for a 1.8 trillion won ($1.6 billion), 36-machine order. The attack helicopter decision had been due in October 2012, but was put on hold until after the elections. The ROK hopes to have the helicopters between 2016 and 2018.
The AH-1Z would have represented continuity with the ROK’s existing AH-1S fleet, and a September 2012 DSCA export request was already approved. The T-129 would have been a reciprocal deal with a major arms export customer (vid. Aug 9/10, but Turkey has also bought South Korea trainers, tanks & artillery). A DAPA official is quoted as saying that the AH-64E’s superior target acquisition capability, power, and weapons load gave it the edge, and so South Korea will begin the acquisition process. The weapons load issue is debatable, but the Apache is certainly much more heavily armored than its counterparts, and its combination of modernized optics and MMW radar or UAV control does give it an edge in target acquisition. Korea Herald | Reuters.
Loss in South Korea
Dec 11/12: South Korea. The ROK government’s decision to delay their attack helicopter decision until after the Dec 19/12 elections is seen as a positive development for the T-129. Its problem is that the country’s military is widely believed to prefer the AH-64 Apache. If true, TAI’s challenge is to find other decision centers within the government who might be swayed toward their product. Turkish Daily.
May 2012: South Korea. The T-129 is shortlisted alongside Bell Helicopter’s AH-1Z Viper and Boeing’s AH-64D Apache Block III for South Korea’s attack helicopter competition. A decision is expected by Octiober 2012. Source.
March 27/12: Turkey’s SSM procurement agency has unveiled their new 5-year strategic plan, with timetables for key acquisitions. The plan commits to begin delivery of the T129 ATAK by 2013, and CIRIT laser-guided 70mm rockets for the ATAKs by 2016. Hurriyet Daily News.
Oct 31/11: AH-1W stopgap. With Turkey’s fleet of serviceable AH-1F/W Cobra attack helicopters dwindling, demands from the Army for helicopters to use against the Marxist Kurdish PKK in Turkey and Iraq, and no arrival of even base configuration T129s before mid-2012, Turkey launches an official request [PDF] for 3 AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters from US Marine Corps stocks. They’ll also get 7 T700-GE-401 engines (6 installed/ 1 spare), plus inspections and modifications, spare and repair parts, personnel training and training equipment, publications and technical documentation, and U.S. Government and contractor support.
The estimated cost is $111 million, and all sale proceeds will be reprogrammed into the USMC’s H-1 helicopter upgrade program to build UH-1Y Venom armed utility and AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters. Implementation of this proposed sale will require the assignment of approximately 5 contractor representatives to Turkey for a period of up to 90 days, for differences training between U.S. and Turkish AH-1Ws helicopters. See also Oct 26/09.
Nov 8/10: AgustaWestland announces a EUR 150 million contract for 9 “basic configuration”/ “partially armed” T129 combat helicopters, plus spare parts. The releases do not say, but it’s reasonable to expect only base AW129 capabilities, without provisions for new Turkish weapons like UMTAS. The stopgap attack helicopters will be assembled by Turkish Aerospace Industries, Inc. (TAI) and delivered by mid 2012, one year earlier than the 51 T129s already on order.
AgustaWestland says that the T129 program remains on schedule with both the System Requirements Review and Preliminary Design Review completed in 2009. The Critical Design Review will be completed shortly. Prototypes are being assembled in both Italy and Turkey, and they expect to start the flight test program in January 2011. AgustaWestland | Hurriyet Daily News.
Aug 9/10: Korean Quid Pro Quo? DAPA aircraft programs director Maj. Gen. Choi Cha-kyu says that Turkey is actively considering a partner role in the K-FX fighter program as their indigenous fighter design project. Turkey would bear the same 20% project share as Indonesia if they come on board, with South Korea responsible for 60%. There are reports that in return, Turkey wants South Korea to pick the T-129 ATAK helicopter as their future AH-X heavy attack helicopter.
June 16/10: Turkey has launched “urgent” talks with AgustaWestland for 9 A129 Mangusta attack helicopters, as a stopgap measure to keep their attack helicopter fleet viable until 2014, when the first T129s are supposed to become available. The parties are expected to meet over the next few weeks to negotiate a price and delivery schedule, but reports say that the Turks are looking for deliveries within the next 2 years.
The Kurdish separatist PKK has stepped up attacks on Turkish targets this spring, and the military is finding existing resources inadequate. With Israeli heavy UAV options in question, attack helicopters become a very important military options in the mountainous terrain of Kurdistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, Turkey’s byzantine and bare-knuckled procurement processes has delayed their efforts, leading to the current gap. See also Oct 26/09 entry.
April 14/10: Turkey’s SSM procurement agency picks Thales as its helmet mounted display system partner. Their TopOwl HMDS already equips the US Marines’ new UH-1Y Venom utility and AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, Eurocopter’s Tiger scout/attack helicopter, and the NH90 medium utility helicopter. Like TopOwl, Turkey’s derivative Helmet Integrated Cueing System (HICS) will incorporate latest-generation image intensifier tubes for tactical night flight; plus a wide-field (40°) binocular cueing system visor that will display flight and targeting data, symbology, and images from other sensors.
More precisely, Turkey picked state-owned Aselsan, who then picked Thales. Thales’ main competitor is Israel’s Elbit Systems, whose offerings range from the comparable JEDEYE to the less sophisticated ANVIS/HUD and IHADDS for AH-64 Apaches. Thales Group’s release quotes Aselsan Director of Airborne and Naval Programmes Metin Sancar:
“After a competitive process with the major suppliers of helmet mounted sights for helicopters, Aselsan was selected in partnership with Thales… more than 700 [TopOwl] units have been delivered to date. Turkish pilots who evaluated the system in flight were impressed by the comfort of the helmet system and fully appreciated the benefits of visor projection technology, and this played a role in the procurement decision.”
March 19/10: Turkey’s T-129 prototype crash-lands near Verbania in Italy. The 2 Italian pilots were injured, but their condition is not life-threatening. In a statement, TAI says that: “The accident is not expected to affect the ATAK program’s development timetable.” Defense News.
Oct 26/09: Turkey reportedly has just 6 of its original 12 AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters in service, to accompany an estimated 23 earlier-model AH-1F Cobras. An interim attack helicopter buy was deemed necessary until the T-129s are operational. A Sunday Zaman report quotes US Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey, who said that the USA has agreed to sell Turkey an unannounced number of AH-1W attack helicopters from the US Marines’ inventory. It adds that:
“Early this year Turkey sought the purchase of about 10 Cobra helicopters estimated to cost about $1.5 billion from the US to meet its stop-gap measures in the fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Upon the US decision to sell an unidentified number of Cobras to Turkey, Sunday’s Zaman learned that Turkey has abandoned talks with Russia on the purchase of several Mi-28 helicopters.”
Sept 28/09: AgustaWestland announces the maiden flight of the T129 P1 prototype, during an official ceremony held at AgustaWestland facilities in Vergiate, Italy.
June 1/09: Arabian Aerospace points out the secondary commercial benefits of AgustaWestland’s deal with Turkey:
“AgustaWestland’s opening of a regional business headquarters in Turkey in 2008 signified its intention to increase its presence in the Middle East market. The Ankara base is seen as an ideal platform to build on the company’s growing share of the market in Turkey and will also manage the Tactical Reconnaissance and Attack (ATAK) programme… Elsewhere, the AW139 is enjoying success in the region.”
June 24/08: The agreement between AgustaWestland and TAI formally comes into effect. The program is expected to last for 114 months (9.5 years), and the 1st “T129″ attack helicopter will be delivered to Turkey in June 2013. Other international orders may follow, if TAI can win them. AgustaWestland release:
“AgustaWestland is pleased to announce that the contracts of the Turkish Attack and Reconnaissance Helicopter (ATAK) Program have become effective and the program has officially started at the ceremony held at the facilities of the Turkish Aerospace Industries, Inc. (TAI) today… having the right to use and administer the intellectual property of the T129 ATAK Helicopter, TAI shall be the sole source for its work share under the ATAK program for all potential future world wide sales of the T129 ATAK Helicopter. The Collaboration Agreement also provides TAI with the right to sell and market the T129 ATAK Helicopter worldwide.”
Sept 7/07: The Turkish SSM procurement agency announces the signing of industrial arrangements contracts with AgustaWestland:
“Within the framework of ATAK Program as per Defence Industry Executive Committee Decree dated 30th of March 2007, Contracts between SSM, TUSAS (TAI), AGUSTAWESTLAND and ASELSAN have been signed on 7th of September, 2007. Official signature ceremony will be held soon.”
Some unresolved questions remained, but both were cleared up by the Sept 17/07 TAI release. Defense-Aerospace reports that Turkey will take over the entire A129 Mangusta program, and transfer the production line to Turkish Aerospace Industries’ facility outside Ankara. This was confirmed.
The second question concerns the number of helicopters, which has now been resolved. Previous reports in the Turkish press gave figures of 30 helicopters+20 optional, a far cry from the 91 originally desired. Finmeccanica’s Sept 11/07 announcement [PDF], set the number at 51 A129 helicopters, with an estimated value for AgustaWestland of around EUR 1.2 billion, and no mention of options. TAI’s Sept 17/07 release, however, clearly notes the deal’s structure of 51 helicopters + 41 options, for a total of 92.
March 30/07: Finmeccanica subsidiary AgustaWestland anounces:
“The Turkish Executive Committee has announced today that it is to start contract negotiations with AgustaWestland, in partnership with Turkish Aviation Industry (TAI), for the Tactical Reconnaissance and Attack Helicopter – ATAK Project – for the Turkish Land Forces Command. The estimated value of this programme to AgustaWestland is in excess of 1.2 billion EURO based on the requirement for 51 A129 helicopters.” [DID: then about $1.6 billion]
“…The AgustaWestland proposal includes significant industrial benefits for Turkey. Several leading Turkish aerospace companies, such as TAI and Aselsan, will be involved in the programme. Final assembly, delivery and acceptance of the aircraft will also take place in Turkey. The A129 is a multi-role combat helicopter designed for day/night and adverse weather combat operations. The A129, powered by two LHTEC T800 turboshaft engines, has a state-of-the-art cockpit…”
Note that the release merely announces the beginning of negotiations. While “preferred source” negotiations usually have a strong record of success, this is the exact stage in the process where previous acquisition attempts have failed. The Turkish News quoted an industry source some time ago, who reminded onlookers that:
“Our procurement history is full of illusions of victory… When a bidder wins a contract it thinks the game is over. It may not be so.”
Dec 2/06: Turkish Daily News reports that the competition is stalled, and will either be formally canceled or simply frozen into immobility:
“Under pressure from the end-user, procurement authorities will likely cancel the existing competition, defense officials admit. “None of the short-listed solutions fully satisfies the end-user,” said one official. “We may renew the competition, or go for an off-the-shelf purchase. That’s unknown for the moment…”
“Turkey’s top governmental panel that oversees procurement decisions will convene on Dec. 12 to discuss the attack helicopter program along with others, most notably a decision to opt for the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter F-35 fighter aircraft… The attack helicopter program will be discussed, probably with no full agreement. “There may or may not be an official announcement for the cancellation of the current bidding process,” a procurement official familiar with the program said. “But in any case it would not be realistic to expect any progress, with the military deeply dissatisfied over the existing bids.” The Defense Industry Executive Committee is chaired by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and includes Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, Chief of General Staff Gen. Yasar BuyukanÄ±t and head of the [SSM] procurement office… Murad Bayar.”
Appendix A: “I Coulda Been A Contenda…”
Boeing (AH-64 Apache), Bell Textron (AH-1Z Viper, who won the previous Turkish competition in 2004 until the deal fell through), and Sikorsky (S-70 Strikehawk variant of the Black Hawk utility helicopter in service with the Turkish Armed Forces) were uninterested in the production arrangement described above, and could not offer such guarantees under US export control arrangements; as such, none of them bid this round by the Dec. 5, 2005 bidding deadline.
EADS Eurocopter’s Tiger and Kamov/IAI’s KA-50/KA-52 were reportedly eliminated when the Turkish government chose the two lowest-cost bidders.
The Denel Rooivalk (trans. “Red Hawk,” or more properly “Kestrel”) is a heavier attack helicopter, with fewer integrated weapons systems than the A129. One of its key features is that it has been designed to operate in very basic surroundings for prolonged periods without sophisticated support. At present, the only Rooivalks produced since the helicopter’s inauguration in 1999 have been 12 machines for the South African Defense Forces. The Malaysian Defence Force supposedly has plans to acquire Rooivalk helicopters “when funding is available,” and South Africa’s Port Elizabeth Herald quotes analysts who believe that a win in Turkey might also tip Pakistan toward the platform.
Middle Eastern Newsline offers a further report that South Africa has outlined plans to co-produce a range of platforms in Turkey as part of a defense partnership based on Ankara’s attack helicopter program. They said South Africa has offered one of the most generous offset deals as part of its offer of the Rooivalk attack helicopter to the Turkish Army. “Under the offer, Turkey and South Africa would create a strategic defense partnership that would rapidly develop out defense industries,” a Turkish official said.
On the flip side, the Turkish Daily News reported that Eurocopter who supplies the Rooivalk’s engines and some spare parts, has said that it would not guarantee a supply line for Turkey if Ankara chose the Rooivalk.
Note that both Agusta and Denel propose moving their production lines to Turkey.
The shortlist was something of a surprise to many observers; at the time, the Turkish Daily News reports that it may even lead to friction between the government and the military. Turkey’s military, which has a large political role as the de facto guarantor of Kemal Attaturk’s secularist vision, was reportedly split between the Eurocopter Tiger and Boeing Apache. The paper further noted that Land Forces Commander Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the most critical military figure concerning the attack helicopter program and possibly the next Chief of Staff, was not present at the meeting.
Appendix B: Additional Readings & Sources
- Turkish SSM – Attack and Tactical Reconnaissance Helicopter Procurement Program.
- Turkish Daily News (Nov 23/05) – How not to buy weapons systems. Offers a time line of the program from 1995-2005.
- AgustaWestland – T129
- Army Technology – A129 International Multi-Role Combat Helicopter, Italy
- Army Technology – Rooivalk Attack Helicopter, South Africa
- DID – Turkey Sticks With Sikorsky: $3.5b for over 100 H-60 Family Helicopters. Some may also feature a weapons package.
- Turkish Daily News (Dec 2/06) – Back to square one in attack helicopter plan: Ankara preparing to scrap bidding. Via NOSINT.
- The Herald Online (July 5/06) – Turkey shortlists Rooivalk attack chopper
- Turkish Daily News (July 4/06) – Helicopter contest may divide government, military
- Middle Eastern Newsline (July 4/06) – S. Africa Offers Missile Projects To Turkey
- Turkish Press (July 4/06) – Defense Industry Executive Committee Meeting
- Houston Chronicle/AP (June 30/06) – Turkey Shortlists Firms for Helicopter
- DID (Sept 29/05) – Turkish Attack Heli Competition Stumbles Again
- Thanks to reader Keith Campbell for his added precision in the translation of “Rooivalk”