Turkish Attack Heli Competition Stumbles Again
Back on August 15, 2005, DID noted the revival of Turkey’s on-again, off-again attack helicopter buy. The program has been plagued by a combination of political hesitancy and contract demands from the Turkish government that have killed past deals. Meanwhile, the program has been scaled back from 145 helicopters to just 50 – and now Turkish Daily News reports that procurement of an initial batch of 30 attack helicopters is facing fresh delays and a possible decision by the leading contender not to bid.
Turkey has become concerned that its limited number of helicopter gunships – 7 AH-1W Super Cobras and about 20 earlier AH-1 Cobra versions – may fail to meet the military’s operational requirements given that the Kurdish terrorist PKK resumed its attacks in May 2005. Yet the problems they face are almost wholly of their own making.
In fairness, this postponement of a critical bidding deadline from Sept. 13th to Nov. 8, 2005 apparently came at the vendors’ request. Meanwhile, the Turkish Daily News reports that officials responsible for procurement hope this will give them extra time to “sort out a few disputed clauses in the contract specifications before the new deadline.”
The problem was a clause that requires all bidders to produce a preliminary government authorization. U.S. export laws and regulations do not allow for blanket sales permission in advance for a fresh deal – after a contract is signed and the defense and state departments agree to it, the Pentagon seeks final congressional approval. Given the fact that the USA is Turkey’s number one defense supplier, this was not a well thought-out move to say the least.
The U.S. government has now become involved, and a Turkish official said that the SSM defense procurement agency might agree to a governmental pledge not guaranteeing the supply of the desired systems, but pledging full governmental efforts for the deliveries. That would probably have been a better requirement in the first place, given the very public procedures of its top defense supplier. Turkish officials are optimistic that acceptable language can be crafted, though one does wonder why it has had to wait until now.
This wasn’t the first major SNAFU in the program.
Originally launched a decade ago in the mid-1990s, the attack helicopter program first crashed in 2004. Four years of negotiations with Bell Helicopter to jointly produce the AH-1Z Super Cobra failed, largely over major price differences and licensing problems.
The Turkish SSM responded by opening a fresh international competition, but did so in a way that magnified the problems again rather than solving them.
The February 2005 RFP for up to 50 helicopters was immediately confronted by major objections from the world’s leading attack helicopter producers, who said that the terms and conditions for the program “fall out of global practices and make participation almost impossible.”
Turkey’s defense procurement agency “softened” the RFP in May 2005, but major US manufacturers seemed unimpressed – Bell Helicopter Textron, who makes the AH-1Z, quit the competition shortly after the reissued RFP, and reiterated that decision in May 2005 despite the RFP revisions.
A Bell official said this week that the company might return to the competition, and industry sources note that resolution of the licensing requirements issue may play a role. Yet licensing is not the only problem the SSM has introduced into this competition, as it pushes unwise industry consolidation at home and overestimates its leverage with major manufacturers abroad. Unless the lessons of the AH-1Z negotiations’ failure have been learned by the Turkish SSM, a repeat is likely – and if Bell believes that to be the case, the firm may well continue to decline participation.
Interest in the revised February 2005 RFP has also been expressed by Boeing, which is offering its AH-64D Apache Longbow. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. is offering an armed version of the S-70 Black Hawk utility helicopter currently in service with the Turkish Army, and soon to be in service with the Turkish Navy too if the issue of financing credits can be worked out.
The Turkish Daily News reports that Turkish procurement officials dismiss the armed S-70 option as simply a utility platform with weapons that fails to meet the Turkish Army’s requirements. If Bell does not return to the contest, therefore, the only viable U.S. option is Boeing’s Apache.
The Apache would likely be competing against several foreign options, which may include EADS Eurocopter’s Tiger; Italy’s Agusta A-129 Mangusta; and possibly South Africa’s Denel with the Rooivalk. Within this group, South Africa’s unclear export policies probably make them too unreliable. The Mangusta is a fine machine but the Tiger is probably the most serious contender due to its leverage re: French & German political support for Turkey’s EU bid.
Also lurking in the wings is the ultra-advanced Ka-50-2 Erdogan (trans: “born to be a man”), a 1997 Kamov-IAI joint venture that revolves around a modified version of the Ka-50 Black Shark, also known as “Werewolf” or “Hokum” in its NATO reference. The Erdogan is a tandem cockpit twin-seater variant that features modern Israeli “glass cockpit” avionics, and a turret-mounted folding 30mm cannon as opposed to the fixed 23mm cannon of the Ka-50. The Black Shark is generally considered to be the highest-performance attack helicopter in the world, but owing to Russian budgetary difficulties production has been very limited thus far.
UPDATE: In the end, there was a winner: the A129I. Just 12 years after the competition had begun.
- Turkish Daily News (Nov 23/05) – How not to buy weapons systems. Offers a time line of the program from 1995-2005, which certainly drives the title’s point home.