Turkey keen on attack helicopter program despite snags

Turkey keen on attack helicopter program despite snags

Turkey remains fully committed to a co-production program with Italian-British AgustaWestland for scores of T-129 attack helicopters despite "minor" technical snags that have delayed acceptance tests for an initial batch of nine choppers, Hurriyet Daily News reported.

"It is perfectly normal to have problems during acceptance tests. We remain committed to this program. It is a matter of days or weeks before we find a solution," a senior defense official said. "We want to have these helicopters in our inventory in perfect condition."

The official said acceptance tests had been carried out on a double-check basis, both by the end-user, the Land Forces, and the quality check department of the defense procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM).

A batch of early delivery T-129 attack helicopters, dubbed the T-129A EDH, which Turkey has acquired from AgustaWestland, have been repeatedly failing acceptance tests since 2012 due to a mismatch with technical specifications stated in the contract. Industry sources say the calibration failures center on lower-than-required maximum speed, excess vibration during flight, maximum takeoff weight and poor firing performance.

The six T-129A EDHs are part of a batch of nine platforms which Turkey ordered in November 2010, increasing its total order to 60. The nine were to meet an urgent operational requirement for the Turkish Army against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Murad Bayar, Turkey's top defense procurement official, said there was even significant foreign interest in the T-129. "The program is on track. There is potential for exports. This chopper is possibly the best solution in the world in asymmetrical warfare," Bayar said.

The T-129s were largely built by AgustaWestland in Italy with an expected delivery in late 2012, one year before the Turkish-built helicopters would start being delivered. The first nine choppers are to be armed by Turkey.

A source at TAI, the Turkish prime subcontractor for the attack helicopter program, admitted "deviations from original specifications" and said "hard work was ahead to correct these."

What if the technical work to attain the performance criteria in the contract specifications fails? "One way or another, this program will go ahead as planned," the defense official said.

According to industry sources, there are two options: either the producer (AgustaWestland and TAI) should improve performance, or SSM will have to bend contract specifications so that the military examiners can give a nod and "accept" the nine platforms.

A senior SSM official said a solution could eventually be found "in between the two options." The official did not specify how. But in an earlier dispute similar to this (Israeli-made Heron drones) Bayar explained how technical snags had been overcome with the words "an agreement around different perceptions."

Turkey announced on March 30, 2007, that it had decided to negotiate with AgustaWestland to co-develop and produce 51 attack helicopters with 40 options based on Agusta's A-129 Mangusta International. The T-129 would be assembled in a TAI plant near Ankara. A contract was signed on Sep. 7, 2007.

On June 22, 2008, the agreement - also known as ATAK and worth a total $3.2 billion - between TAI and AgustaWestland formally came into force. It has been confirmed that the T-129 will be a Turkish-built platform. Under the agreement, TAI will develop an indigenous mission computer, avionics and weapons systems.

Tusaş Engine Industries, Inc. will manufacture the LHTEC CTS800-AN engines under license. Under the co-production agreement, Turkey also has full marketing and intellectual property rights for the T-129 platform.

On Sep 28, 2009, the first flight of the T-129 P1 prototype took place at AgustaWestland's facilities in Vergiate, Italy, and on Aug. 17, 2011, TAI announced the first successful flight of the T-129 prototype produced at its facilities near Ankara. The tested prototype was the first of three that were assembled in Turkey.

Luckily, the delays have come at a time when Turkey does not urgently need the T-129s which are intended to be used primarily in the Turkish military's warfare against the PKK, as a fragile cease-fire since late 2012 has been easing the pressure.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been aggressively lobbying to sell the T-129 to Pakistan to replace its aging AH-1F fleet and is prepared to agree to generous terms with cash-strapped Pakistan to do so. Pakistani media reports have stated a deal with Turkey could lead to local production of the T-129 at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC).

Turkey made its latest push during Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Sept. 16-18 visit to Turkey for a third High-Level Cooperation Council meeting. Sharif was given a demonstration of the T-129's capabilities and a potential deal was discussed.

Turkish officials confirmed talks have "matured to a certain extent," and Turkey remains committed to any possible deal, not only for financial benefits but also potential strategic gains.

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