Philippine T129B ATAK helicopter order finalised

A long-expected Philippine order for six T129B ATAK helicopters has finally been concluded with Turkish Aerospace (TUSAS), with the first deliveries scheduled to take place before the end of this year.

Philippine Defense Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, announced on May 24 that the deal had been finalised and the following day, the Department of National Defense (DND) confirmed that the first two attack helicopters would be delivered to the nation from Turkey in September. A second pair will follow suit in February 2022, with the final two due to arrive in the Philippines in February 2023. DND spokesperson, Arsenio Andolong, said the helicopters will be acquired for a total contract price of US$269.3m (approximately PHP12.9bn) through a government-to-government procurement process.

T129 ATAK pair in flight [TUSAS]
A pair of Turkish Aerospace (TUSAS) T129 ATAK helicopters in flight. The Philippines has finalised a long-awaited order for an initial batch of six examples of the platform, with first deliveries expected to take place in September 2021. TUSAS

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) had been looking to acquire a dedicated but affordable attack helicopters for some time to ‘beef up’ its lightly-armed rotorcraft fleet. Presently, the air arm operates nine MD Helicopters (MDHI) MD-520MG Defenders and eight AgustaWestland (now Leonardo Helicopters) AW-109AHs in counterterrorism and ground support missions. From November 2019, the service has also employed a pair of former-Jordanian Bell AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters.

The T129 ATAK had been selected as a preferred option to meet the requirement as far back as November 2018. On December 18, that year, a memorandum of understand was signed with Turkey to acquire the type and a notice of award followed in 2019. However, since then the deal has been in limbo due to problems in securing a US export license for the T129’s LHTEC CTS800-4A turboshaft engines, which prevented the contract from being finalised.

On April 30, 2020, the acquisition of the ATAK platform by the Philippines was placed into further doubt as the US State Department approved the possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of six Bell AH-1Z Vipers to the Philippines for an estimated cost of US$450m. On the same day, the US State Department also approved the possible FMS of six Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters to the Asian nation for an estimated cost of US$1.5bn.

The T129 ATAK is a twin-engine, tandem-seat, all-weather attack helicopter, which has been developed by TUSAS in partnership with AgustaWestland (now Leonardo Helicopters). It is based on the latter's A129 Mangusta and completed its first flight on September 28, 2009. TUSAS

At the time, it seemed likely that the Philippines would scrap its deal with Turkey for the T129 ATAK in favour of procuring US-made attack helicopters (either the AH-1Z or AH-64E), which would be more expensive but easier to export to the Asian nation. However, it seems that any possible sale of these US platforms has now been scrapped, as the acquisition of the T129B has been finalised.

On May 17, 2021, the communications and marketing director of TUSAS, Serdar Demir, announced that – despite continuing opposition from the US Congress on exports to Turkey – the US State Department had finally approved the necessary export permits and completed the required paperwork to enable the sale to the Philippines to proceed. While just six aircraft are being acquired initially, the Asian nation is looking to procure more, with any further orders being subject to available finances.

AirForces Intelligence data confirms that Turkey is presently the sole operator of the T129 ATAK. The type is employed by Turkish Gendarmerie, Turkish Land Forces and Turkish National Police. Having gained new engine export approvals, it is possible the attack helicopter will receive renewed interest from customers on the export market. For instance, Pakistan sought to acquire 30 examples of the T129B in July 2018, but the deal stalled due to the same reasons as the Philippine contract. It is currently unknown whether Pakistan will continue to pursue the acquisition.