The United States’ approval of a possible sale of six Boeing Apache or Bell Viper helicopters on March 30 to the Philippines may shut the door on a proposed sale of Turkish ATAK T129 choppers to Manila.
In December 2019, Filipino Defense Secretary Lorenzana announced that the Philippine Air Force (PAF) has chosen the ATAK T129, adding that their budget for attack helicopters (estimated at US$250 million) could afford eight to 10 units. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) had been singed then to pursue negotiations. However there has been no development since the MoU.
Modest defence budget
The US State Department’s announcement states that the Philippines government has requested to buy six Boeing Apache AH-64E chopper plus weapons, communications and maintenance package worth $1.5 billion or six Bell AH-1Z Viper with fewer weapons worth $450 Million.
Selecting either of the US-made helicopters has come as a surprise given the modest defence budget of President Rodrigo Duterte’s government. The Philippines national budget for 2020 is a modest 188.6 billion pesos ($3.6 billion).
This comes soon after Manila is said to have concluded a deal with Russia buy 17 Mi171 heavy lift helicopter worth some $250 Million. A Philippines delegation had visited Moscow and the Russian Helicopters’ plane in Ulan Ude from March 3-7 this year and a deal is said to be in the making, according to Russian sources.
ATAK helicopter engine trouble
The trigger for letting go the Turkish ATAK 129 (Advanced Attack and Tactical Reconnaissance Helicopter) is said to be American denial of export permission to sell the LHTEC T800-4A engine made by Rolls-Royce and Honeywell which has US-made components in it.
However, Turkey has not given up on the deal and is exploring other engine options- including developing one on its own or with help from a foreign source. A deal to sell 30 helicopters to Pakistan for an estimated $750 Million could not proceed due to lack of export license for the engine.
The US has been courting Philippines to buy helicopters for some time now. In November 2019, the PAF received two used Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters which the government of Jordan ‘gifted’ to the Philippines.
Jordan 'gifts' Bell AH-1F Cobras to the Philippines
However, the ‘gift’ seems to have been financed in some part from further purchase of US weapons by Jordan and to wean in Manila into using and maintaining the Bell helicopters. The ex-Jordan Bell AH-1F Cobras come armed with TOW anti-tank missiles, 70mm Hydra rockets and a 20mm M197 cannon. A generous ‘gift’ by any standards.
The inclusion of Boeing in this deal is surprising given that the Apache’s package costs more than three times as that of the Bell AH-1Z Viper which is not far behind in performance and deploys almost similar weapons. It is also nearly half the Philippines annual defence budget.
The threat to the Philippine armed forces comes from terrorists who do not have the kind of air defence systems that a regular army would have. So a heavily armed Apache or Viper carrying a supper-expensive price tag would be overkill at best.