The U.S. recently agreed to a $953 million deal that provides Pakistan with 15 AH-1Z “Viper” helicopter gunships, a thousand Hellfire missiles along with supporting military equipment and services. The U.S. has been working out the details of this purchase since early 2015 after agreeing to deal with years of Pakistani requests for more helicopter gunships. What may have persuaded the Americans to move forward on this request was the late 2014 Russian offer to sell Pakistan twenty Mi-35 helicopter gunships. Shortly after Pakistan confirmed this purchase the U.S. agreed to discuss terms on the AH-1Z idea.
The Mi-35 is a twelve ton helicopter gunship that also has a cargo area that can hold up to eight people or four stretchers. The Mi-24/35 can carry rockets, missiles bombs, and automatic cannon. It is used by over thirty countries and has a pretty good reputation for reliability. The design is based on the 1960s era Mi-8 transport helicopter. The Pakistan Army has been desperate to get all the helicopter gunships it can as these aircraft have proved a key weapon in the battles against Islamic terrorists in the tribal territories. The Pakistani government is always short of cash. The Russians are not known for offering generous credit terms like they did in the Cold War, but deals can be made if the long term benefit is attractive enough. Russia saw a helicopter sale to Pakistan as a long term investment.
Pakistan has long sought more helicopter gunships to supplement and eventually replace the 35 American AH-1S and AH-1F gunships it already had. Over a third of these have been lost in the last few years in the tribal territories where helicopter gunships are heavily used and frequently shot at. Second-hand gunships are what the government has been used to paying for. So getting new stuff from Russia, on attractive terms, was an offer that could not be refused.
For years Pakistan tried to obtain the American 6.6 ton AH-1W model from the United States. This would have been a major upgrade for the Pakistanis. Developed by the U.S. Marine Corps the W model was configured for naval use, and has two engines and protection against sea water corrosion. Like the AH-1F model used by Pakistan, the AH-1W has a crew of two and is armed with a 20mm, 3 barrel, autocannon (with 750 rounds) and can carry eight TOW missiles or 38 70mm unguided rockets. Typical sorties last about three hours (twice that of the AH-1F). The Pakistanis are also equipping their gunships with night vision (thermal imaging) equipment.
Meanwhile the U.S. Marine Corps was upgrading the AH-1W and in 2011 declared its new AH-1Z attack helicopter operational and sent some of them to Afghanistan. The marines had been working on this new aircraft since 2006. Basically, the AH-1Z is created by remanufacturing older AH-1T/W attack helicopters into AH-1Z models. This produces a helicopter with a 10,000 hours (in the air) airframe, new engines, new electronics and an updated and much more effective gunship. There have been some problems with the fire control system (which is, when it works, similar to what the latest AH-64s have), that caused some delays. However, the marines were able to catch up, and the AH-1Z kept to its scheduled entry into service. The marines plan to have 189 AH-1Zs by 2020. This will include 131 remanufactured AH-1Ws and 58 AH-1Zs that will be manufactured new.
The AH-1Z model upgrade uses a new 4 bladed composite rotor system, transmission, strengthened structural components, and modern digital cockpit avionics. The 8 ton AH-1Z is armed with a three barrel 20mm Gatling gun (and 750 rounds) and eight Hellfire missiles. It can also carry two Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The AH-1Z can operate around the clock, in all kinds of weather. Sorties last about two hours each and cruising speed is 248 kilometers an hour.