The test flights of Turkey's national attack helicopters, which will be produced jointly with Italy, were concluded on September 28, producing satisfactory results for Turkish defense officials.
Following a decade of discussions on developing a combat helicopter program, Turkey awarded the bid to produce combat and reconnaissance helicopters to the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) -the prime contractor- and the Italian AgustaWestland -the subcontractor- in 2007. Under the $3 billion program, 51 (plus 40 optional) helicopters will be produced for the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). AgustaWestland agreed to transfer technology for the development of Turkey's T-129 ATAK, which will be an improvised version of its A-129 helicopters to meet the Turkish army's specific needs to operate in high altitude mountainous terrain. The first T-129's are scheduled to be delivered to the TSK in 2013 (EDM, June 27, 2008, Today's Zaman, September 29).
The helicopter program is seen as one of the flagship projects for Turkey's flourishing defense industry, as it will involve not only the transfer of advanced technology, but also the integration of various domestically developed weapons and communications systems. Moreover, since Turkey's TAI will have the exclusive rights to market and sell the final product worldwide, the project is particularly attractive for Turkey. Through this and other ambitious national weapons programs, it aims to emerge as a major player in the global arms industry. Pakistan, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have reportedly expressed their interest in purchasing the T-129 (Anadolu Ajansi, September 25).
A prototype of the T-129 held its first test flight at AgustaWestland's facilities in Milan during a ceremony attended by several Turkish and Italian politicians, military officers and bureaucrats. During the ten-minute long test flight, which was performed with no weapons systems installed, the new T-129 flew at varying speeds and performed general maneuvers. The CEO of AgustaWestland Giuseppe Orsi said that tests with the helicopter equipped with a weapons system are expected to be conducted in 2010. Turkish officials observing the tests expressed satisfaction with its results. Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul maintained that although it was only a prototype, the T-129 carried out maneuvers that no other helicopter in its class could perform. He expressed hope that once the firing systems are also installed, these platforms will take their place in the inventory of the Turkish army as one of the most valued assets. He also added that "the successful test flights" will boost the marketability of the T-129 worldwide and other countries might show interest in procuring the helicopter (Anadolu Ajansi, September 28).
The Turkish pilot that flew the T-129 found its maneuverability to be superb. Noting that he had flown American Cobras, he argued that the T-129 performed better than other helicopters in the Turkish army's inventory. Both Orsi and TAI General Manager Muharrem Dortkasli stressed that the first test flights were performed ahead of schedule and that the program will be concluded on time in 2013. Orsi praised the technological capabilities of the TAI and through this project added that the Turkish aviation industry will enhance its place in helicopter rotor technology (Anadolu Ajansi, September 28).
Turkish and Italian officials' emphasis on the smooth progress of the project even ahead of the deadline is significant, given the growing determination of the Turkish military to meet its attack helicopter needs. The Turkish army has reported deficiencies in its operations against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as a result of the delays in the helicopter program, especially after the escalation of the terrorist campaign in recent years. Since the helicopters within the Turkish military inventory are aging and the completion of the national helicopter program will take several more years, the Turkish army has expressed interest in acquiring additional strike helicopters as a stop-gap measure. In this context, it has earmarked the procurement of either Russian or American platforms (EDM, June 17). If the T-129 program could proceed at full speed, it might address the need for such additional purchases.
The local contribution is a major source of pride in Turkey. The avionics and weapons systems of the helicopter are being designed indigenously and will be produced domestically. Roketsan will supply its indigenously developed anti-tank missiles, Cirit and Hydra. In a large-scale project involving over 300 Turkish engines, Turkey's leading defense electronics company ASELSAN developed the mission computer and targeting, navigation, communication and electronic warfare systems. The T-129 will be equipped with advanced anti-tanks missiles, as well as air-to-air stinger missiles (Zaman, September 26).
A remarkable advantage of the T-129 over the Italian A-129 is its engine. Since the Turkish army found the A-129's performance unsatisfactory due to its weak engine power, the T-129 will be equipped with a more powerful engine. The T-129 will use an engine originally developed by LHTEC, a joint venture between U.S. Honeywell and the British Rolls Royce, for the abortive Comanche helicopter project. The new engine allows the T-129 to operate in high temperatures and altitudes. Although some skeptics raised questions as to whether the new engine might create compatibility issues, Turkish officials rejected such criticism. It was noted that the engine is used by four countries with satisfactory performance. According to the Turkish press, even the Italian army was considering the idea of switching to this engine on the A-129's (Anadolu Ajansi, September 25, Hurriyet, September 29).
Although Turkish officials emphasize that Turkey will be able to export the new helicopter, it still remains unclear whether it actually possesses full rights over its worldwide sales. Since the engine will be supplied by a U.S. producer, exporting the T-129 to third countries will require obtaining U.S. export licenses, which might imply a de facto veto.
Despite the positive reports on the test flights, it will be necessary to wait until the T-129's are fully developed and put into action in Southeastern Anatolian terrain to more fully evaluate their performance. In another ambitious weapons procurement project, although Gonul found the performance of the Israeli UAV's excellent during their test flights (EDM, November 3, 2008), they failed to meet the expectations of the Turkish army in its operational use (EDM, December 18, 2008).