The use of attack helicopters in Asia is not a new phenomenon, and several nations have had such a capability for many years. Indeed at least two countries, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have recently used them operationally and, in the case of the former, these operations are ongoing.
However several countries in the wider Asia-Pacific region have embarked on ambitious acquisition programmes and others are developing their own capabilities in-house. Not all are progressing smoothly, with some beset by technical and sustainability problems and - in more than one case - byzantine procurement processes.
Other nations, such as the Philippines, are strapped for cash and cannot afford such complex weapons platforms as the Boeing AH-64D Apache, Eurocopter Tiger, AgustaWestland A129 Mangusta or Russia’s Mil Mi-28 Havoc and Kamov Ka-50/52 Alligator and are looking to a light attack helicopters such as Boeings AH-6i.
The potential for further sales in the region remains strong, with countries either looking to upgrade from earlier generation platforms or, as in the case of Malaysia, acquire the capability for the first time. Manufacturers see the Asia-Pacific region as a growth market and there is a potential requirement for over 300 attack helicopters over the next few years.
Bell’s AH-1 Cobra has been service in Asia for many years, beginning with the Japan Ground Self Defence Force (JGSDF) which acquired 90 AH-1Js between 1979 and 1986. Built under licence in Japan by Fuji Heavy Industries, many were subsequently upgraded to AH-1S standard. Today they are being replaced by Fuji-built Apache Longbows.
South Korea and Taiwan also have substantial Cobra fleets that are due for replacement, but it is Pakistan which is arguably the most active operator of the type. Deliveries of refurbished US Army AH-1Fs began in 1986 and a further eight were also recently delivered from US stocks, bringing the total 34. Pakistani Cobras have been in action against Taliban insurgents in the rugged Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Western Pakistan since 2002 and the action continues to this day.
Similarly, Sri Lanka’s Mil Mi-24V/Mi-35M Hinds saw action against Tamil Tigers in the Eeelam Wars, which finally resulted in the defeat of the latter in 2009. India also has a number of Soviet-era Hind gunships listed on their books, but domestic media reports suggest the type is not operationally effective above 9000 feet, rendering them only of limited use in the disputed Kashmir region. This is one of the main reasons why India wishes to introduce a dedicated attack helicopter in the near future and has most recently released Requests For Proposal (RFP) for 22 aircraft. Indonesia is also purchasing Hinds, and took delivery of six Mi-35Vs in 2008, adding to two aircraft acquired in 2003.
Finally Singapore is a recent addition to the attack helicopter club, with the acquisition of 20 advanced AH-64D Apache Longbows from 2002, under the ‘Peace Vanguard’ programme. Singapore worked its Apaches up in the United States for four years, before their arrival finally in the city state in June 2006. Alongside the Japanese Apaches, Singapore has arguably the most sophisticated and network-capable attack helicopter in Asia.
ACQUISITION AND DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS
Slightly further afield, Australia is grappling with the task of introducing its 22 Eurocopter Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARH) into operational service. To date 13 out of 22 have been delivered, but the type is still on the road to operational use, some six years after the first two helicopters were delivered.
Australia’s Tigers are based upon the French Hélicoptère d’Appui Protection (HAP), which is currently deployed with notable success in Afghanistan. However the ARH programme has been beset by a disappointing rate of effort in its early days of service, with Army sources blaming the delays to the French and German programmes, which in turn have slowed initial training. In addition, some sustainment issues have emerged which have hampered the flying rate. When fully operational, Australia will have two reconnaissance squadrons of Tigers.
Tiger ARH differs from the French HAP variant mainly in the weapons system, being capable of firing the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire and the Australian Army says the helicopter should be operationally deployable by the fourth quarter of 2011.
China has been developing its own attack helicopter for several years now, although most of the details have been shrouded in secrecy. Western observers report that it is being developed by Changhe Aircraft Industries Group in collaboration with industry and known as the Z-10.
The helicopter, which began test flying back in 2003, is reported to have a primary anti-tank role and will use a millimetre-wave fire control radar and helmet-mounted sight to control the weapons, which include guided anti-tank missiles and cannon. Initially to be powered by a version of the PT-6C turboshaft engine, reports emerging from the 2010 Singapore Airshow suggest that this has now been replaced by an indigenous engine. Chinese sources predicted an in-service date of 2009 but there is no evidence available in the west to suggest this has actually occurred.
China currently operates an armed version of the Z-9 helicopter, which itself is a locally-developed version of the Eurocopter Dauphin.
India’s quest to acquire an attack helicopter capability has been tortuous to date and, at the time of writing, the future of the programme is still unclear. As noted earlier, the country wishes to replace its now elderly Hind fleet with a modern type, and the geography of the country has produced a unique set of very demanding requirements.
An initial RFP was released in May 2007, with contenders reported to be the AgustaWestland AW-129 Mangusta, Bell AH-1Z Cobra, Boeing AH-64D Apache, Eurocopter Tiger and Mil Mi-28N NightHunter. Bell and Boeing withdrew their bids later that year, for different reasons: Bell could reportedly only offer the AH-1Z through a Foreign Military Sales programme which would (then) have precluded stipulated offsets and Boeing because it could not get an eight-week extension to the August deadline. The Indian Government stipulated an in-service date of May 2011 on the project, but later cancelled the RFP in March 2009, saying that three of the remaining companies in the competition, “could not meet qualitative requirements”.
Two months later the RFP was again released to industry and Indian press reports suggested that this time Eurocopter and AgustaWestland withdrew bids, leaving the Russians and Americans to slug it out. Certainly trials have been carried out in Rajasthan and Kahsmir and Boeing has confirmed its Apache is still in the race. Eurocopter is also still hopeful of selling Tiger in India, despite press reports, saying as recently as October that it considers India a possible market.
As noted earlier, Japan is acquiring the Apache Longbow and is currently undertaking construction of the majority of its 50 helicopter order at Fuji Heavy Industries at Utsunomiya. The Apache beat Bells AH-1Z in the competition, known locally as the AH-X, and the decision was announced the victor in 2001. Known as the AH-64DJP, Japan’s first aircraft was handed over at Boeing’s Mesa Arizona facility in December 2005, before being shipped to Japan. It was ultimately delivered to the JGSDF in March 2006. The first aircraft was also the first Apache to be delivered with the capability to launch the AIM-92 Air to Air version of Raytheon’s Stinger missile.
Malaysia is a potential customer for attack helicopters, having recently begun modernising its Army Aviation force (Tentera Darat Malaysia) with the acquisition of the AgustaWestland A109LOH. As far back as 2005 (then) Deputy Prime Minister Najib was predicting Malaysia would one day own an attack helicopter, but the defence budget has been under strain in recent years and no formal competition exists at this point in time. Eurocopter has long considered Malaysia as a potential Tiger customer, but the country has also been linked to the Turkish T.129 programme (a derivative of the AW.129 developed by Aselsan and TAI in conjunction with AgustaWestland), as has Pakistan.
The defence budget of the Philippines cannot afford ‘high end’ attack helicopters such as Apache, Cobra or Tiger, so it is reportedly very interested in the light attack helicopter, designed specifically for work alongside Special Forces. Examples of this genre include Bell’s OH-58D (and most recently the proposed OH-58F) Kiowa Warrior and Boeing’s AH-6i.Little Bird. Boeing displayed the AH-6i at this years’ Singapore Airshow and revealed that it had held talks with both the Philippines and Singapore, who were interested in setting up a Special-Forces aviation support capability.
South Korea is perhaps the most lucrative market in the foreseeable future, though it revised its Korean Multi-Role Helicopter (KMH) programme in 2005 to concentrate on a military utility helicopter with assistance from Eurocopter, known as the Korean Helicopter Programme (KHP). The country has a requirement for around 270 light-medium attack helicopters to replace its existing MD-500 and a two-year study to define the Korean Attack Helicopter (KAH) is currently underway. Both Eurocopter and AgustaWestland have expressed their interest in working with South Korea on the programme, which is planned around a 2018 in-service date.
In addition, its AH-X project has been developed to provide a heavy attack helicopter capability to replace the AH-1S Cobra fleet. The purchase of 36 refurbished AH-64D Block I Apaches for upgrade to the latest Block III standard has been widely reported, but this is very much an on again-off again proposition, and once again Eurocopter (at least) considers the country a potential Tiger customer..
Taiwan is also looking to replace or upgrade its ageing Cobra fleet and has attempted to acquire the Apache on several occasions; however political sensitivities seem to have hindered this process. Most recently, the US Defense Security Co-operation Agency (DSCA) advised Congress of a possible sale in October 2008, but it is not known if this will be consummated.
With all this activity, attack helicopter salesmen are waiting in the wings, with order books ready and pencils sharpened.