The T129 Attack Helicopter for the Philippine Air Force?

Front view of a T129 Attack Helicopter. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

During the Singapore Airshow in February 2018, the Turkish company Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) claimed that they were in “advanced discussions” with several countries including the Philippines for the possible purchase of their T129 ATAK Helicopter.1

Then towards the end of 2018, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana finally confirmed that the Philippines intended to buy approximately eight (8) T129 helicopters.2 Purpose built Attack Helicopters tend to generate a lot of interest among my defense page’s followers just like other major attack aircraft like the A-10 Warthog, so let’s take a closer look at the T129.

’The T129 Program’
The T129 is described as a Twin Engine, Tandem Seat, Multi-Role, All-Weather Attack Helicopter which first flew in 2009. It is a license built improved version of the A129 Mangusta Helicopter of the Italian Army that was made by the company now known as Leonardo.

Compared to the original A129, the T129 is heavier and has more powerful engines, and is based on a later version of the A129, the A129 International.3 The T129 first entered service with the Turkish Army in 2014,4 and the latest version is the T129B.

As per the 2019 Flight International World’s Air Forces,5 the Turkish Army operates 40 T129 with 19 more on order. Pakistan signed a contract for 30 T129 helicopters in the middle of 2018, making them the first export customer of the aircraft.6

The T129 is called the “ATAK“, and I can’t find any sources that clearly states why it’s called that way. It could’ve been derived from the combination of the words “Attack” and “Tactical” of the phrase “Attack and Tactical Reconnaissance Helicopter” which was the name of the program that started the aircraft. Or it could simply be the Turkish spelling of the English word “Attack“.

’Comparisons’
I am going to compare the T129 to two of the Attack Helicopters that our Philippine Air Force (PAF) are using right now, the MD-520MG and the AW109E. I will also be comparing it to the AH-1F Cobra helicopter which Jordan is donating over to us.7 8 9 10

PASSENGERS – Both the MD-520MG and AW-109 are able to carry passengers allowing them to conduct Emergency Medical Evacuation in the field if necessary. The T129 though like the Cobra only has space for the Pilot and the Gunner, hence it won’t be able to do any such emergency evacuations.

CRUISING SPEED: The T129 is at least 32 kph faster than the MD-520 and the AH-1F, and about as fast as the AW-109E. This is a big advantage as it means it can respond faster during Close Air Support (CAS) missions.

PAYLOAD: Payload is one area the T129 really excels at, thanks to its powerful engines and relatively lighter fuselage. It has the highest Payload with full internal fuel among the four aircraft, almost four (4) times that of the MD-520, more than three (3) times that of the AW-109E and two and half times that of the AH-1F.

DISC LOADING: Being the heaviest aircraft and having rotors shorter than that of the AH-1F results in the T129 having the highest Disc Loading among the four aircraft, indicating that it will have the least maneuverability at its Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW)

’Weights’
The T129 is at least 760 kg heavier in terms of Empty Weight (EW) than the MD-520 and the AW-109E, but is 645 kg lighter than the AH-1F. It is shorter in terms of height and has a smaller Rotor Diameter than the AH-1F, but has a longer fuselage. It’s fuselage though is 45% made up of strong but light and modern Composite material,11 allowing it to have a lighter EW than the Cobra.

In terms of MTOW though, the T129 has the highest value among the four (4) helicopters compared, thanks to its more powerful engines allowing it a much heavier Payload.

’IFF and Range’
In terms of Internal Fuel Fraction (IFF), the T129 has the second lowest value among the four aircraft, second only to the MD-520, indicating less range than the AW-109E or AH-1F at MTOW.

Side view of a T129 Attack Helicopter. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This is because it doesn’t carry as much Internal Fuel compared to its MTOW, in fact its Internal Fuel capacity is several kilograms less than that of the AH-1F. The T129 though is capable of carrying two External Fuel Tanks (EFT) with 294 kg of fuel each12 for a total of 588 kg thereby increasing its range.

Doing so lowers its Payload to 1,378 kg, but that is still higher than the Payload of any of the other three aircraft. However, using EFTs does limit the amount of weapons it can carry as the two outer Pylons will then be allocated to carry the EFTs, leaving only the two inner Pylons to carry weapons.

’Weapons’
Just like the AH-1F, it has an internal Gun Turret which can be aimed by a Helmet Mounted Sight (HMS), much better than the forward firing only Gun Pods used on the MD-520 and AW-109E. Its M-197 gun is also the same as that of the AH-1F which has a slower rate of fire than the Gun Pods of the MD-520 and AW-109E, but are of a higher caliber and therefore much more powerful.

The 20 x 102 mm Vulcan caliber ammunition used by the M-197 has more than three (3) times the Kinetic Energy (KE) at the muzzle (at 53.6 kJ versus just 16.9 kJ)13 than the .50 Browning Machine Gun (BMG) caliber rounds used by our MD-520MG and AW-109 helicopters.

The T129 though only carries 500 rounds of the Vulcan ammunition which is 250 rounds less than that of the AH-1F. The Vulcan is the same ammunition used on the A-50 Gun System (GS) of our FA-50PH Fighting Eagle Lead In Fighter Trainer (LIFT) aircraft.

Like the AH-1F and unlike the MD-520 and AW-109E, the T129 has guided missile capability right off the bat, specifically the ability to aim and fire the CIRIT 70mm Semi-Active Laser Homing (SALH) missile, UMTAS Anti-Tank missile and Air to Air Stinger (ATAS) missile.

’Defense’
As expected of a purpose built Attack Helicopter, the T129 has a pretty extensive defensive capability, starting with its Electronic Warfare (EW) suite which is at par with that of a modernized AH-1F and far superior than that of the MD-520 and AW-109E. Among these are:14
Countermeasure Dispensing System (CMDS)
Missile Warning System (MWS)
Laser Warning Receiver (LWR)
RF Jammer (RFJ)
Radar Warning Receiver (RWR)
Infra-Red Countermeasures (IRCM)

However, not much specific data about the T129’s armor or ballistic protection capability is available. For that, I had to go and look at the A129’s data, and assuming that these are the same as that of the T129 then it goes down as follows:15
– The fuselage can resist hits from up to 12.7 mm caliber rounds
– The Main Rotor Blades can also resist hits from 12.7 mm rounds and tolerate 23 mm round hits
– Engines are armored and separated by an armored fire wall

While this armor protection is better than that of the MD-520 and AW-109, it seems to be a bit less than that of the AH-1F, which has ballistic protection not found on the A129/T129 like:16
– Armor for the Fuel and Hydraulic Lines
– Armored Seats with side panels that can be pulled up for more protection
– Armored Nose Plate to shield the Gunner
– The Tailboom can withstand a hit from a 23 mm caliber round

And remember that the armored data I got is for the A129 and not for the T129. But this could just be a case of some of the T129’s ballistic protection capability not publicized enough. At any rate, this is something our Air Force can easily confirm with the manufacturer.

Other combat survivability features of the T129 include (again, data taken from the A129):
– Triple redundant Hydraulic systems
– Redundant Fuel Feed systems
– Self Sealing Fuel Tanks
Infra-Red (IR) Suppressed Exhausts.

’Combat Record’
The T129 made its official combat debut in late January 201817 during Operation: Olive Branch (OOB), Turkey’s military operation aimed mainly at removing the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) from Afrin, Syria.18

That debut was initially tainted though when a T129 was shot down a couple of weeks into the offensive on February 10, 2018. Both pilots were killed, and not much details are known on exactly how it was shot it down, whether it was by missile/s and/or gun/s.19

There is a video of the event, but it is not so helpful as it only shows the T129 already going down.

From the video, it seems the T129 lost complete control and power as it dropped straight down like a rock. The video also seems to show that the T129 was not on fire when it went down.

Now the T129’s comprehensive EW Suite and Ballistic Protection were supposed to help keep it from being shoot down like this, but the likely main cause could be that the Turkish Pilots just didn’t have much experience and exposure yet then to the weapons and tactics of the YPG.

Note that the war did drag on until late March 2018 when Turkish forces finally took full control of Afrin after driving out the YPG,20 and no T129 helicopter was shot down again despite the fact that they were in the frontline until the end of the Combat Phase of the operation.

This could indicate that the T129 Pilots were able to adjust their tactics effectively after that initial loss. In fact it seems to have performed quite well, culminating in the release of a number of videos on Youtube showing the T129 in action:

’Export License Complications’
The biggest issue with the T129 right now though is whether or not the United States (US) will issue an Export License (EL) to TAI so it can export the aircraft in its current configuration to prospective buyers like us.

This is because the CTS800 Engine used on the T129 was originally designed and built by a company called Light Helicopter Turbine Engine Company (LHTEC) which is a Joint Venture between the United Kingdom (UK) based company Rolls Royce and the American company Honeywell. LHTEC itself is based in the US.

Now the Turkish company Tusas Engine Industries (TEI) license built the CTS800,21 but TAI will still require license or permission from the US to export it. An EL can only be applied once a Contract with a buyer is made,22 hence TAI only applied for an EL after they signed a deal with Pakistan.

’Turkish-US Political Differences’23
In August 2018, TAI and Turkish Defense officials reportedly unofficially talked to the Press and expressed some doubts that the US will indeed approve the EL because of deepening Political differences between the US and Turkey.

Among the issues that caused these differences include the jailing of an American Pastor in 2016 by the Turkish government on charges of Terrorism and orchestrating a Coup. Another is Turkey’s continued attack on the Kurds in Syria which the US supports.

There is also the issue of Turkey refusing to join the US led sanctions againsts Iran, and their decision to buy Russian made S-400 Surface to Air Missile (SAM) systems which the US opposed.

In December 2018, TAI officially confirmed that they had already applied for an EL,24 but so far as of this writing the US has not officially acted on it yet, and nor have any US official publicly commented on the issue.

’Alternative Engines?’
If the US does decide to give Turkey an EL for the export of the T129, then no problem, we can buy the same aircraft from TAI. But if the US refuses to give an EL to TAI, then that will be a big setback as it means we won’t be able to buy the T129 with the CTS800 engines.

The alternative would be to use a different engine that is not made by an American company, but this will likely cause a big delay in the delivery of the aircraft as new Tests and Certifications need to be made and these take time to complete.

It will almost certainly delay the plan for the PAF to receive some T129 as early as this year.25 Hence we will need to keep a close watch on whether the US issues an EL for Pakistan or not as it will have a big impact on our prospects of acquiring the T129.

’Parting Shot’
The T129 does have its share of shortcomings, like the fact that it carries less ammo for its main gun and has less armor than the Cobra. It also has less range and maneuverability on a full weapons and fuel load.

But then again it has a huge payload, quite fast and has twin engine redundancy. Its expected lack of range can be corrected with the use of EFT, but at the price of less weapons load.

It is definitely a lot better overall than our MD-520 and AW109 as it has enough defensive and offensive capabilities to make it effective not only for Internal Security Operations (ISO) but also against better equipped armies of other countries.

That EL issue though is a cliffhanger, and we will need to closely watch the developments of Pakistan’s order of the T129. At any rate, if we do end up getting the T129, then its combat videos is an indication of how our traditional internal enemies will be in for a much tougher time once it goes into service.

With that I end this blog with another such video, this one released towards the end of OOB:

SOURCES:


  1. SINGAPORE: TAI eyes Asia-Pacific deals with T129s, Anka UAVs,
    (https://archive.fo/ffTx8
  2. Air Force chooses Black Hawk, Turkey Attack Choppers — Lorenzana,
    (https://archive.fo/KxJSW
  3. Agusta A129 – Forecast International,,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20190112113426/https://www.forecastinternational.com/archive/disp_pdf.cfm?DACH_RECNO=246
  4. The AgustaWestland A129 Mangusta & Airbus Helicopter Tiger,
    (https://archive.fo/t77i6
  5. 2019 Flight Global World’s Air Forces,
    (https://www.flightglobal.com/asset/26019/waf/
  6. Turkey, Pakistan reach their largest-ever Defense Contract,
    (https://archive.fo/PJJAA
  7. AW109 Power Equipment and Technical Data,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20131024033510/http://www.agustawestland.com/product/aw109-power-1
  8. MD500 Series Technical Description,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20131113222714/http://www.mdhelicopters.com/v2/pdfs/products/MD500_Series_TechDescription.pdf
  9. The Bell AH-1 HueyCobra, Section [6] Army TOWCobra: AH-1Q, AH-1S, AH-1P, AH-1E, AH-1F,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20170913210508/http://www.faqs.org/docs/air/avcobra.html
  10. T129 ATAK Multirole Combat Helicopter Aselsan Brochure,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20120105152950/https://www.tai.com.tr/ds_Resource/image/content/ATAK-Brosur-SON.pdf
  11. Agusta A129 – Forecast … 
  12. T129 ATAK Multirole Combat Helicopter Aselsan … 
  13. Types of Weapon Cartridges,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20171206130237/http://www.aosurplus.com/ammo_chart.htm
  14. T129 ATAK Multirole Combat Helicopter Aselsan … 
  15. The AgustaWestland A129 Mangusta & Airbus … 
  16. AH-1 Cobra Attack Helicopter for the Philippine Air Force,
    (https://archive.fo/KXbhP
  17. Turkey’s T129 Helicopters hit PYD/PKK Targets in Afrin,
    (https://archive.fo/pbLQT
  18. Operation Olive Branch,
    (https://archive.fo/KucWK
  19. Turkish T129 ATAK Helicopter shot down near Efrin-Turkey Border,
    (https://archive.fo/YMJ16
  20. Turkey takes full control of Syria’s Afrin Region, Reports say,
    (https://archive.fo/RCAKS
  21. TEI Haber News – April 2008 p. 7,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20080627091308/http://www.tei.com.tr/1/tr/images/news/dergi/TEI%20News%20103.pdf
  22. TAI’s T129 Export Hopes Hinge on US License,
    (https://archive.fo/ofPaJ
  23. Diplomatic Row jeopardizes $1.5B Helicopter Deal between Turkey and Pakistan,
    (https://archive.fo/glJXa
  24. Turkish Defense Firm seeks OK for exporting ATAK Helicopters,
    (https://archive.fo/hynPq
  25. Philippines seeks to receive First ATAK Helicopter next Year,
    (https://archive.fo/jCcMS

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