The fatal crash of a Pakistani AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter puts added stress on an aging fleet. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP)
ISLAMABAD — The fatal crash of a Pakistan AH-1F Cobra helicopter gunship during a night training mission Wednesday has further whittled down the well-worn fleet at a time when it is engaged in efforts to cleanse North Waziristan of the Taliban and its allies.
Though the type of helicopter was not specified in any reports or statements, official sources gave off-the-record confirmation to Defense News that it was a Cobra gunship.
Though the cause of the crash, which killed the two crew, is still being investigated, it is thought a dust storm that blew up over the base in Multan, which is home to the Army’s aviation arm, was a factor.
Pakistan has been desperately trying to replace its 1980s era Cobra fleet for years, but has only managed to acquire a small number of surplus AH-1Fs from the US and ex-Jordanian helos.
However, analyst Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said the platform could soldier on until a replacement is found.
“I think the Cobra fleet would endure for a while. We have excellent maintenance and now overhaul facilities for them,” he said.
A small number of armed Airbus Helicopters AS550C3 Fennec helicopters were ordered to support the Cobras, but there is no sign yet of them in service.
Former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, said 10 may have been ordered alongside the unarmed variant (of which one may have crashed in Islamabad in March 2011), but he is unsure if they were actually delivered.
Pakistan has not been able to obtain assistance from the US in this area. Efforts to acquire the AH-64 Apache were rebuffed by Washington, and what was considered the most likely alternative, the AH-1Z Viper, now also appears unlikely to be supplied.
This has left the Turkish TAI T-129 and the Chinese CAIC WZ-10 as the types most likely to replace the Cobra over the long term.
Turkey has attempted to sell the T-129 to Pakistan. It offered an initial number of T-129s free of charge and help to set up an assembly facility at the home of Pakistan’s aviation industry in Kamra, near Islamabad.
However, China is also reportedly offering its WZ-10, and even Turkish officials admit Beijing will be able to offer more flexible payment options.
To complicate matters further, Pakistan is also negotiating with Russia for a number of Mi-35 Hind gunships.
Pakistan already has a small number of Hind gunships that it acquired from defecting Afghan crews in the 1980s, and there has been talk of refurbishing them and bringing them into service.
But Cloughley says these airframes “are past usability.”
He is optimistic, though, that a deal will soon be signed.
“I don’t know the status of the Mi-35 deal, but Moscow is very keen to provide them and it only needs a go-ahead for things to move swiftly,” he said.
Another possible alternative, he said, is the Sikorsky Battlehawk.
The AH-60L Battlehawk has been ordered by the UAE, but Shabbir is unsure if Pakistan will opt for this.
“Maybe if it comes from US funding; it is not a dedicated gunship like Cobra, so the need to find a replacement for Cobras will still be there,” he said.
Cloughley, however, says finances again may force the decision.
“The Chinese machine apparently on offer, the Z-10, doesn’t measure up to the Mi-35 or go anywhere near the Battlehawk, but of course, as usual, it will all come down to money,” he said.
“I think in the long run the Chinese option seems more feasible during to better financial and wider weapons package,” Shabbir said.