ANKARA — Turkish procurement authorities have formalized their plans to build an indigenous Turkish helicopter, tasking the country’s main aerospace company with the job, but industry sources and analysts remain skeptical about the feasibility of the program.
Defense News has learned that the government signed the contract in June to design, develop and manufacture what would become the country’s first indigenous military helicopter.
Under the Indigenous Helicopter Project, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) signed the contract with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) for all three phases of the program, officials said.
The program was launched in June 2010, and TAI submitted its bid to be the local prime contractor in October. TAI’s five-ton, twin-engine “light” helicopter would meet the Turkish military requirements in the medium- and long-run, but also will have a civilian model for the commercial market.
A military official said the Turkish helicopter aims to replace Turkey’s aging UH-1s, but it also could be used to meet Army helicopter training needs.
“We aim to build a platform designed by Turkish engineers, with customized sub-systems that also can compete on international markets with its performance and price. The first national helicopter will be sold to the Turkish market and then to international buyers,” a senior procurement official familiar with the program said.
A TAI official said Turkey could eventually buy more than 800 helicopters, and with exports, the final sales number could reach around 1,200. “Turkey is the world’s ninth biggest market for helicopters,” he said. “These projections are realistic.”
Both officials confirmed that Turkey intends to use know-how and technology transfers it would earn from a Sikorsky-led utility helicopter program.
In May, Turkey’s procurement officials said they came near to signing a US $3.5 billion contract with Sikorsky Aircraft for the co-production of scores of utility helicopters, but a contract has yet to be announced.
Turkey in 2011 selected Sikorsky as its partner company to lead production of the country’s next-generation utility helicopters. Sikorsky’s T-70, the Turkish version of its S-70 Black Hawk International, defeated Italian-British AgustaWestland for the contract.
The S-70 Black Hawk International is used by the militaries of dozens of countries, including Turkey. AgustaWestland was competing with its TUHP 149, the Turkish version of its newly developed AW149.
The first batch will be for 109 utility helicopters, but with follow-on orders, more than 600 machines could be built at a cost of more than $20 billion, according to defense analysts.
Sikorsky and AgustaWestland had announced benefit packages worth billions of dollars each. Several Turkish companies, most notably TAI, will take part in the joint production.
But industry sources and analysts say that Turkish ambitions to build the country’s national helicopter may face several hurdles.
One senior TAI engineer voiced suspicion about the certification for the Turkish helicopter. “Honestly, I am not sure how remote we stand from certification or how hard obtaining it would be.”
An Ankara-based defense analyst said the major hurdle could be the engine. “TAI does not have specific plans to overcome the problem about the engine, which is not an unusual snag in most Turkish indigenous programs. Apparently, the Turkish helicopter will be dependent on a non-Turkish engine and nobody knows which one would best fit,” he said.
He added: “From a realistic point of view, I would expect a slew of problems regarding costings and time frame.”
TAI officials hope to fly their own helicopter within five years.