Warplanes: AH-1Zs Return To The Afghan Border

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January 5, 2018: Pakistan received the first three of 24 American AH-1Z “Viper” helicopter gunships at the end of 2017, with another nine arriving in 2018. The AH-1Zs are newly built and most of them are for the U.S. Marine Corps which declared them operational in 2011 and sent some of to Afghanistan to do the same sort of thing Pakistan wants them for not far from where the Vipers first served in 2011. The marines had been working on this new aircraft since 2006. Basically, the AH-1Z is the most recent model of the AH-1T/W attack helicopters. The production model AH-1Zs are newly built rather than rebuilt from older AH-1 type gunships. The AH-1Z has an airframe good for over 10,000 flight hours and uses a new four bladed composite rotor system, transmission, strengthened structural components, and modern digital cockpit avionics. The 8.3 ton AH-1Z has two engines and is armed with a three barrel 20mm Gatling gun (and 750 rounds) and up to eight Hellfire missiles. It can also carry two Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Electronics include radar warning, missile warning and day/night vidcams that work with a helmet mounted displays. 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. Pakistan is basically getting the same AH-1Z the American marines use except for some classified communications gear being replaced with similar gear specified by Pakistan.

Pakistan ordered its AH-1Zs in two batches. In late 2015 there was a $953 million order for 15 AH-1Zs, a thousand Hellfire missiles along with supporting military equipment and services. The U.S. has been working out the details of this latest purchase since early 2015 after agreeing to deal with years of Pakistani requests for more helicopter gunships. In early 2016 the U.S. agreed to a sell Pakistan another nine AH-1Z along with spare parts (mainly additional engines) and tech support for $170 million. Deliveries were to start by 2018 but were sped up because Pakistan was using its older AH-1F gunships regularly to go after Islamic terrorists along the Afghan border.

Another incentive to speed up AH-1Z was the late 2014 Russian offer to sell Pakistan twenty Mi-35 helicopter gunships. Shortly after Pakistan confirmed this purchase and the U.S. agreed to discuss terms on the AH-1Z proposal. The AH-1F gunships Pakistan already had had been essential in the continuing campaign against Islamic terrorists in northwest Pakistan that turned into a major operation in mid-2014. The AH-1s are a lot more flexible than the smart bomb equipped F-16s that Pakistan also uses and the troops on the ground usually prefer helicopter gunship support. This is mainly because the helicopters arrive more quickly, stay around longer and provide ground troops with real time reports on what the enemy is up to. This has kept enemy casualties up (over 4,000 dead so far) and friendly losses down (fewer than 800 soldiers and paramilitaries killed) for the major campaign that began in June 2014 and officially ends in 2018.

Russia offered Mi-35 helicopter gunships which are adequate but not as effective as the AH-1Zs. 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 originally 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 most other AH-1 models the AH-1W has a crew of two and is armed with a 20mm autocannon 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 and are similar to the older AH-1F model long used by Pakistan. The 4.4 ton AH-1Fs are single engine helicopters based on the original AH-1 that entered service in the late 1960s. By the time the U.S. agreed to sell Pakistan the latest AH-1 gunship that model available was the AH-1Z.

 


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