ISLAMABAD — Pakistan and Russia on Wednesday finalized a deal for the purchase of four Hind helicopter gunships, a number that is expected to grow.

However, beyond saying an agreement had been signed for four helicopters, local officials provided no further details.

The Ministry of Defence Production, which handles acquisition, did not return a request for comment on the agreement, such as a time frame for further deliveries or if they were specifically for counter-terrorism duties.

Both nations signed an agreement in November to cooperate on counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism issues, with the provision of defense equipment being made in this context.

Analysts here have stated the Mi-35s will be used to support special forces missions, especially the Special Operations Task Force, (SOTF), which is heavily involved in fighting in the Tribal Areas against the Pakistani Taliban, its allies and affiliates.

According to Russia's TASS news agency, a draft contract for four Mi-35M 'Hind E' helicopters was given to Pakistan in June. Pakistan's Army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, made a trip to Moscow around the same time where it is believed the deal was agreed upon.

According to analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank, the Hind fulfills a longstanding requirement.

"The Pakistan Army has been looking to procure Mi-35 type helicopters for some time, in fact since early '90s. It is a very versatile helicopter and it meets the requirement for [counter-insurgency] operations in the northwest, since it is one of the very few armored assault helicopters. It can carry eight fully equipped special operations soldiers and it is armed to protect itself and suppress enemy ground fire," he said.

Efforts to acquire such helicopters increased in the post-2001 environment.

"Post 2001, the Pak Army pushed to purchase Mi-35 because it has a lot of common engineering features with Mi-17, which they have more than 60."

The deal has been pursued since 2009.

The number of helicopters agreed upon is far lower than expected, however. At Pakistan's biennial defense exhibition IDEAS held in Karachi in December, a representative from Russian Helicopters told Defense News that the number under discussion was "more than five."

Analysts have said It has since been understood by analysts that the number under discussion was 20.

Khan said Russia's current economic downturn has dictated the reduction in number for the time being.

"Initial requirement for Mi-35 was for 20 helicopters, which was supported with a line of credit provided by the Russians worth $2 billion," he said. "However, after the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU and the USA, this line of credit was not possible."

Consequently, Pakistan's "Ministry of Defense was recently allocated funds to purchase four or five with eventual purchase of 20," Khan said.

Pakistan's attempts to acquire replacements for its worn out AH-1F Cobra gunships have taken many turns over the years, and until relatively recently it had been thought the options were between the Chinese WZ-10 and Turkish T-129. Both were heavily promoted to Pakistan.
 
Three WZ-10s are undergoing an operational evaluation in Pakistan though, and the Hind agreement as well as a $952 million deal to supply 15 AH-1Z gunships to Pakistan cleared in April appears to have shut the door on the T-129.
 
Analyst, author, and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, believes this potential acquisition of three gunship types may be problematic.
 
"While it makes sense for the Army to acquire more attack helicopters, it is administratively unsound to have as many as three types," he said. 
 
"Training ground crews in servicing and maintenance will be most time-consuming and costly. Given the shaky state of US-Pakistan relations it is understandable that Pakistan wants to diversify, in case there is a congressional decision to cut military aid, as has happened at critical times in the past. But it's an expensive way to go."
 
In the meantime, the AH-1Z deal also continues to make steady progress. Earlier this week an $85.5 million contract was awarded to Bell Helicopter Textron by the DoD "to conduct research for, and develop updates to, weapons systems as part of a system configuration set (SCS) in support of the H-1 aircraft and the [US] Navy and government of Pakistan." This effort is for SCS work to include creating prototypes of system capability improvements to the fleet in support of emerging needs."

Email: uansari@defensenews.com