ANKARA, Turkey, ISLAMABAD, and WASHINGTON — Pakistan has agreed to, yet again, extend a deal with Turkey for T129 Atak helicopters — a planned procurement riddled with delays.
“We have obtained a six-month extension from Pakistan,” Turkey’s top procurement official, Ismail Demir, told reporters March 12.
But — amid Washington’s enduring opposition to Ankara purchasing the Russian-made S-400 Triumf air defense system — another senior procurement official in Turkey told Defense News that the extension doesn’t imply the deal will ultimately work out.
“This is not a technological or commercial issue,” he said. “It is purely political, and as long as the reasons for the U.S. blockade remain in effect ... what looks like a Turkish-Pakistani deal will be a victim of a Turkish-U.S. dispute.”
How did it all begin?
In 2018, Pakistan chose Turkey’s T192 attack helicopters to replace its fleet of AH−1F Cobra gunships that were acquired in the 1980s. Pakistan signed a $1.5 billion contract with Turkish Aerospace Industries for 30 T129 helos; however, the company must first secure U.S. export licenses before delivery can take place.
The 5-ton T129 is a twin-engine multirole attack helicopter produced under license from the Italian-British company AgustaWestland and based on the A129 Mangusta. It’s powered by two LHTEC T800-4A turboshaft engines. Each engine can produce 1,014 kilowatts of output power. The T800-4A is an export version of the CTS800 engine. LHTEC, the maker of the engine, is a joint venture between the American firm Honeywell and the British company Rolls-Royce.
The deal is in limbo because of U.S. hesitancy to issue export licenses for the engine, but a Turkish aerospace official explained that isn’t the only hiccup.
“There are other components the Americans can refuse to issue export licenses for,” he said. “We have the impression that the T129 deal would not go through without a political go-ahead from Washington.”
In January 2020, Pakistan extended the deadline for TAI to deliver the helicopters, but with the sale in jeopardy, the Turkish government tasked Tusas Engine Industries, TAI’s sister company, with developing an indigenous engine for the T129.
“Pakistan has agreed to give us another year [to resolve the problem]. We hope we will be able to develop our indigenous engine soon to power the T129,” Ismail Demir, the head of Turkey’s top procurement agency, said at the time. “After one year, Pakistan may be satisfied with the level of progress in our engine program, or the U.S. may grant us the export license.”
Will the US change course?
U.S. lawmakers have quietly frozen all major U.S. arms sales to the NATO ally to pressure Ankara to abandon its Russian-built S-400.
Separate from the engines, the Biden administration pulled back requests made to Congress to approve sales to Turkey’s defense procurement agency, the Presidency of Defence Industries, on which the U.S. imposed sanctions in December 2020 in response to the S-400 purchase.
Honeywell withdrew the engine export request early last year, but then resubmitted it in August. Yet, according to a U.S. government source with knowledge of the issue, Washington’s stance hasn’t shifted.
“I don’t see that changing. First of all, it’s Turkey. The Hill has not been clearing arms cases for Turkey at all ... and the reason is the S-400,” the source told Defense News on condition of anonymity.
If congressional committees did clear the export sale, “it’s very likely there would be a legislative effort to block it, so it wouldn’t be surprising that the Turks, after two years, realized what the situation is and are looking for alternatives,” the source added.
U.S. lawmakers are also concerned that the engines for the attack helicopters could add to Pakistan’s ground attack capability against India, with which the U.S. has been deepening defense and security relationships.
Is there an alternative helicopter?
Defense News contacted Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production, which handles procurement, and the Army through the Inter Services Public Relations media arm about the extension and whether there is an alternative helicopter under consideration if the deal falls apart. Neither responded, nor did TAI to questions about the state of the deal.
Before the T129 was chosen, China sent three of its CAIC Z-10 helicopter gunships for trials in Pakistan, but it appeared they failed to sufficiently impress officials and were returned.
Asked if Washington might clear the tech export as a means of retaining a level of influence over Pakistan amid negotiations with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley was not optimistic. (Pakistan has historically had influence over the Taliban.)
He also said Pakistan’s military is cautious about using American equipment. “There is wariness in the Pakistan military concerning equipment of U.S. origin or with U.S.-supplied components,” he said, “simply because if the operator engages in hostilities with a more decided ally of the U.S., then delivery of these items could be affected.”
“In the case of Pakistan, it is unlikely that Washington would be prepared to provide such equipment should there be conflict with India,” he added. “The solution for Pakistan seems to lie, yet again, in China. It is likely that the Pakistan Army will evaluate the Chinese Z-10ME attack helicopter.”
Burak Ege Bekdil is the Turkey correspondent for Defense News.
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.