Pakistan's loss of a Cobra attack helicopter on patrol will be difficult to replace as the fleet ages. (Agence France-Presse)
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s counterinsurgency efforts suffered a serious blow yesterday with the loss of an AH-1F Cobra gunship. The fleet is aging fast as it is heavily deployed in harsh terrain along the border with Afghanistan.
A report by the Associated Press of Pakistan quoted the military’s Inter Service Press Release (ISPR) media arm saying the helicopter had made a forced landing near the town of Rahwali after a “technical fault.”
The two crew members were said to have suffered slight injuries, and were taken to nearby Central Military Hospital, Gujranwala. The crash site was secured by local police and Army personnel.
Images available of the crash show the helicopter broken in at least two pieces behind the cockpit. The skids have collapsed, and the engine and tail separated.
However, the number in service is uncertain. Some sources cite approximately 40, but it is unknown how many are operational and how many are being cannibalized to keep the others flying.
The US has delivered extra airframes with a small number arriving in Pakistan in 2007 and made operational again with the help of US firm DynCorp.
More recently eight ex-Jordanian AH-1S Cobras were delivered earlier this month.
Regardless of the number in service, Pakistan cannot afford to lose any.
A spokesman for ISPR, asked how many of the ex-Jordanian Cobras are flying or if any details of the crash are available, would only say, “No such details [are] available right now.”
The crash has focused attention on the need to retire the helos, but Pakistan’s enfeebled economy is unlikely to be able to generate the required funds.
Given how hard-pressed the fleet increasingly is, former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, praises the fact they are still operational.
“It speaks volumes for the servicing effort that there have not been other technical faults that have resulted in accidents,” he said.
Additional political factors also make replacement difficult.
“Certainly, there should be an going replacement of the Cobra fleet, but unless this can be arranged on a no-cost or much-reduced cost basis, Pakistan is going to find it very difficult indeed to find the money, with the IMF breathing down its neck, and a rather negative US Congress,” Cloughley said.
Pakistan has two options. Turkey is offering the TAI T-129, and the US could provide the AH-1Z.
Turkey has offered three T-129s at no cost, and possible local assembly, but Pakistan would have to buy the rest, perhaps 40 or so helicopters, to replace the Cobra fleet. So it is uncertain if Pakistan could afford the deal.
According to analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank, Turkey has already helped Pakistan support its Cobra fleet.
“Initially there was a problem with acquiring spare parts from the US, but later the majority of parts were procured from Turkey,” he said.
Both sides seem willing to capitalize on this, but Pakistan’s financial woes have hampered progress.
Efforts to secure replacement gunships from the US have for years focused on the AH-1Z, but the US Marine Corps is given priority over any foreign order.
It is thought that a number could be acquired by Pakistan through access to US funding, but official sources here have been unwilling to discuss if such an offer has been made, as has been speculated.
Opting for an offer of AH-1Zs would definitely be the more affordable choice for Pakistan, but could come at a cost of alienating fraternal ally Turkey.
Khan is clear where the next step for Pakistan lies however.
“The next and immediate step should to accept the three gifted T-129s from Turkey, along with the spare parts, and start moving in the direction of setting up an assembly line for these potent helicopters,” he said.
Purely on technical and operational terms, he said an AH-1Z deal would be a good idea however.
“If this notification comes to fruit Pakistan will have two options; either to buy brand new AH-1Zs or procure the stored airframes of AH-1 F/S/W and convert them into AH-1Z,” he said.