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T129s Finally Arrive
by James Dunnigan
May 15, 2014

Turkey recently received the first nine of sixty T129 helicopter gunships it ordered in 2010. Delivery was supposed to take place in 2013, but there were problems (vibration, flight performance, and weight issues) meeting performance specifications discovered during the 2012 acceptance tests that had to be attended to first. The T129s are of Italian design and were modified and assembled in Turkey. The T129 is an improved A129 with a more powerful engine and armed with 12 Turkish made UMTAS (similar to Hellfire II) missiles and a 20mm autocannon. The T129 can also use 70mm unguided rockets.

Turkey is in desperate need of more helicopter gunships. The Turks have found this type of aircraft particularly useful against Kurdish separatists (the PKK) operating in southeastern Turkey. Currently, Turkey relies on a fleet of about two dozen elderly American AH-1 gunships, which are being worn out because of intense operations against the PKK. Since the 1990s, Turkey has bought over 40 AH-1s, but these were all used machines and the Turks worked them hard and many had to be retired. Beginning in 2007, Turkey began looking into acquiring some Mangusta A129 helicopter gunships as quickly as possible from Italy. At one point the Turks were seeking to lease nine A129s from the Italian manufacturer (or anyone else who would make a deal). The Turks also asked the United States for more AH-1W gunships. The U.S. was not willing to make a major effort to get Turkey more AH-1s, not in light of how hostile Turkey had been toward the United States since September 11, 2001. The A129 manufacturer said it would take two years to deliver the new A129s, while the Turks hoped that leased ones could be obtained in less than a year. When this did not work out, the Turks ordered development and manufacture of the T129.

This gunship shortage is a problem of Turkey's own making. In 2007, after over a decade of evaluating, negotiating, haggling, and delays, Turkey decided to buy 50 A129 Mangusta (Mongoose) helicopter gunships, for about $32 million each, with an option to buy another 40 later. That deal then fell apart and was resurrected in 2010, as a plan whereby at least 51 A129s would be built in Turkey (along with some technology transfer). The latest deals waive a lot of the co-production (building A129s in Turkey). The Turks just want the gunships as quickly as possible.

The latest version of the Italian A129 is roughly comparable to the upgraded versions of the U.S. AH-1 (especially the AH-1W SuperCobra). The 4.6 ton A-129 was the first helicopter gunship designed and built in Western Europe and was introduced in the 1980s. While it has been upgraded frequently, the only customer so far has been Italy, which bought 60 of them. The manufacturer, Agusta/Westland, has been desperate to get an export customer.

Given the delays in selecting a supplier, who was buying, and who was selected, there were probably some bribes involved once the Turks finally selected the A129. Agusta was the only manufacturer to stick with the baffling Turkish procurement process and was finally forced to basically turn over manufacture of the A129 to the Turks in order to get the sale.

The T129 first flew in 2011, and Turkish firms are developing and delivering the electronics. Despite the problems with the prototypes, Turkey is confident it can perfect and even export its T129. This will make Turkey one of the few nations that manufacture and sell helicopter gunships. These include America’s AH-64, China’s Z-10, the French/German Tiger, and Russian Mil-24/35.


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