Bell Hopeful of Philippines Deal as APAC Region Seeks More Attack Helicopters

 - September 23, 2019, 1:03 PM
This AH-1Z is based alongside UH-1Ys with HMLA-169 at MCAS Futenma in Okinawa. (photo: Chen Chuanren)

Helicopter OEM Bell is still in talks with the Philippines even as its defense ministry’s technical working group has recommended the Turkish Aerospace (TAI) T129 ATAK. Although the program is now in a relatively ambiguous state, Victor Chin, Bell senior manager of global military sales and strategy confirmed that the U.S. company is still in talks with Manila.

Although no formal contract has been signed for the T129, the deal is in jeopardy as Turkish Aerospace currently cannot get the LHTEC T800-4A turboshaft engine imported. LHTEC, a joint venture between Honeywell and Rolls-Royce, is prevented from exporting the T800 to Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The diplomatic dispute continues with the United States after Turkey proceeded with its acquisition of the Russian S-400 SAM missile system. The Philippines believes it can afford eight to 10 ATAKs based on its budget.

As the Philippines is also in the process of receiving two ex-Jordanian AH-1Ss, Chin thinks that surplus AH-1Ws sold under the DoD FMS or DMS could be the short-term solution for the nation, followed by the AH-1Z Viper as its long-term plan. He said that, as a treaty ally, the Philippines must also consider the interoperability of the helicopter and its armament with NATO standards.

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, countries such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea all have announced RFIs to acquire attack helicopters to be stationed on amphibious vessels, or to protect their maritime interests. Japan is looking to replace its legacy AH-1Ss for the Japan Ground Self Defense Force’s amphibious brigade, which is modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps. These helicopters will be used for island defense and also posted on ships. Similarly, the South Korea Marine Corp (ROKMC) is considering 24 attack helicopters for its two Dokdo-class amphibious helicopter carriers, alongside the locally-built Surion utility helicopter.

Australia has issued an RFI for 29 attack helicopters to replace 22 Airbus Helicopter Tigers and has highlighted the need for them to be embarked for long periods of time on Canberra-class amphibious assault ships. During an AIN visit to U.S. Marine Corps squadron HMLA-169 at MCAS Futenma in Okinawa, the squadron commented that an Australian Defence Force officer was attached to the squadron for an extended period of time, and had attained one of the highest levels of qualification on the AH-1Z platform.

Bell has offered the AH-1Z to meet all three RFIs, and believes that the marinized features of the helicopter make it the most suitable option for shipborne operations. Chin, a former Marine CH-46 pilot, said, “While anyone can land helicopters on ships, it takes great consideration for prolonged operations.” He averred that these navies would have to consider factors such as ship roll, electromagnetic environment protection, and sealing from the elements; all of which are built into the Viper at the factory. These features include tie-down hooks, zinc chromate primer and seals, and rotor brakes to prevent rotor damage from strong winds on the high seas.

In the meantime, Naval Air Systems Command issued an RFI to industry on September 16 to consider concepts for a new generation of Marine Corps rotary-wing aircraft. The Attack Utility Replacement Aircraft (AURA) would come in both attack and utility versions with considerable commonality, and is intended to replace the UH-1Y and AH-1Z. The specifications are similar to those issued by the U.S. Army for its Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), and it is expected that variants of the Bell V-280 Valor and Sikorsky/Boeing SB>1 Defiant would be proposed for AURA.