A day after Turkey announced the maiden flight of its first domestically made military jet, the supersonic-capable Hürjet, a video has been released showing engine tests for the country’s new T929 attack helicopter, also providing our first good look at the almost-complete prototype. Officials have also announced that the rotorcraft, developed under the ATAK-2 program and which is powered by Ukrainian-made engines, is expected to be delivered to the Turkish Army beginning in 2025.
Photos and video of the T929 prototype were released yesterday by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency news agency. The video sequence shows the aircraft running up its engines and rotors in a dedicated test facility in Ankara, although it’s unclear exactly when these tests took place. Previously, we had seen a mock-up of the T929 and the prototype in the early stage of production.
The T929 is being developed under the ATAK-2 program as a follow-on to TAI’s previous ATAK, which resulted in the T129 attack helicopter. T129s currently serve with the Turkish Land Forces Command, as well as the Turkish Gendarmerie, and the Turkish Police. While the design of the T129 is derived from the Italian-made Leonardo A129-Mangusta, as used by the Italian Army, the T929 is much more ambitious in size and scope and uses a much higher proportion of Turkish-made components and subsystems.
Work on the ATAK-2 project began officially in 2019 and it was only in August last year that production work on the prototype was confirmed to have started. All in all, it’s another example of the impressive pace being set by Turkey’s military aerospace efforts.
“We had a very fast development process,” Mehmet Yilmaz, the ATAK-2’s Chief Product Engineer told Anadolu Agency. “We had a very fast design process. It was decided to fly early about two years ago. We also started and accelerated our work toward the early flight decision. We have been producing parts and supplying equipment for about a year. We have carried out the body assembly and final assembly of our helicopter over the last three to four months,” he added.
Although there is not a date set publicly for the first flight, Yilmaz said the prototype T929 “can fly in the not-too-distant future.” He added: “If things go well, we will move faster.”
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been growing defence cooperation between Ankara and Kyiv, with highlights including plans to build Turkish drones at a new Ukrainian production facility, and construction of warships for the Ukrainian Navy in Turkish shipyards. For its part, the T929 is powered by a pair of TV3-117VMA-SBM1V-01T turboshaft engines, each developing around 2,500 horsepower, and produced by the Ukrainian Motor Sich company. An initial batch of 14 of these engines has been ordered, although the pressures of the war in Ukraine reportedly led to a four-month delay in the delivery to Turkey of the first two. These had originally been scheduled for delivery last September but arrived at the end of January.
Overall, the T929 is a larger and more capable machine than the T129 and is described as a “heavy class” attack helicopter, broadly in the same class as the U.S. AH-64 Apache and the Russian Ka-52, in contrast to its lighter predecessor.
The new helicopter has a stated total weight of around 25,000 pounds, which includes 3,300 pounds of weapons and stores. In comparison, the T129 has a maximum take-off weight of around 11,000 pounds. Meanwhile, the AH-64 tips the scales at around 23,000 pounds gross weight, with the Ka-52 weighing almost 25,000 pounds with a maximum load included.
Avionics will be sourced and integrated locally, now a common feature of Turkish defence aerospace efforts. Continuing the pattern established by the T129, which features an Aselsan-developed avionics suite and indigenous mission computer. This computer helps to run all the aircraft systems, including the ASELFLIR-300T targeting and identification system, a helmet-mounted cueing and display system, VMFD-68 colour multifunction displays, and CDU-900Z central display unit. Turkey has also developed a millimetric-wavelength fire control radar, designated MilDaR, a version of which is expected to find its way onto the T929 in a mast-mounted installation.
In terms of weapons, most if not all are also expected to come from Turkish manufacturers. This includes the UMTAS and L-UMTAS long-range anti-tank missiles and the Cirit 70mm guided rocket. While the T129 was fitted with a U.S.-developed 20mm M197 Chain Gun in the nose, the T929 introduces a locally developed cannon, the T-30H from the Aselsan company.
Similarly, the planned electronic warfare equipment is said to be all-Turkish, with a fully integrated suite that will include missile warning sensors, a radio-frequency jammer, and a directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) system to protect against infrared-guided threats.
Initially, the T929 is planned to be delivered to the Land Forces Command (Turkey’s army), and the Naval Forces Command. This suggests that it could be expected to form part of the air wing of the Turkish Navy’s new TCG Anadolu, an amphibious assault ship that Turkey has more recently said it wants to operate as a drone carrier.
It’s not immediately clear how the T929 will slot into the Land Forces Command inventory. Despite the introduction of the homegrown T129, the command still operates large numbers of the U.S.-made Cobra attack helicopter, with a mixture of older AH-1P/S models from U.S. Army stocks and newer, former U.S. Marines Corps AH-1W ‘Whiskeys.’ Around 53 of the Cobras are still used, together with 57 T129s, with at least 30 more of these on order. The first AH-1s arrived back in 1990 and are now in need of replacement, especially as more modern and advanced AH-1Ws were transferred last year from the Land Forces Command to the Naval Forces Command. One option might be for the T929 to replace the last of the Cobras and operate in a mixed force with T129s.
Both the AH-1 and T129 have been heavily employed in operations against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, where they have faced an increasing threat from man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), suffering some losses as a result. The T929 promises to be an altogether more capable attack helicopter, including as regards self-protection.
In terms of foreign sales, the T929 looks set to be more exportable than the T129, which has always been limited by U.S. export controls on its LHTEC CTS800 turboshaft engines, originally developed to power the U.S. Army’s RAH-66 Comanche. The issue of engine supply was a stumbling block that led to delays in selling the T129 to the Philippines and was likely also a reason that Turkey failed to sell the same helicopter to Pakistan, too.
Export sales of the T929 will not require U.S. approval; since it will be free of components controlled by the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), this promises to open up various new markets for the helicopter. On the other hand, the ability of Ukraine to deliver the required engines for the T929, at least as long as the war with Russia rages, is questionable and could lead to further delays or shortages that could impact the program. The Motor Sich plant in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine has already been hit by Russian airstrikes, at least according to Moscow.
As well as the T929 in the “heavy class” of attack helicopters, TAI is working on a “mediumweight” counterpart, the uncrewed T629, which will weigh around 13,000 pounds. Few details of the T629, which is supposed to be electric-powered, have been revealed, and a tentative first flight of an experimental demonstrator planned for 2021 was not realized.
But if TAI does perfect an unmanned attack helicopter, whatever the powerplant, it could be an interesting adjunct to operate alongside conventional attack helicopters like the T929, in a manned/unmanned teaming scenario. This is a concept that has begun to be explored in Turkey, with close cooperation established between the T129 and Bayraktar TB2 drones, including in coordinated attacks against PKK forces.
With Russian attack helicopter sales likely to be hit by the generally poor performance of these aircraft in the war in Ukraine, it looks like the T929 will be aiming squarely to take sales from the AH-64. With a well-established and still growing operator pool, it seems unlikely that the Apache will face any serious challenge any time soon. On the other hand, by being free of export constraints, the T929 could well still find a niche with operators denied access to U.S. defence products, especially ones as lethal as the Apache.
Moreover, the T929 will continue the Turkish military’s own modernization drive, with its multi-pronged approach that now encompasses the TF-X next-generation fighter, the Hürjet advanced jet trainer/light combat aircraft, the Anka-3 low-observable flying wing unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), and the fighter-like Bayraktar Kizilelma drone, among others.
For Turkey, the T929 should bring a new level of capabilities, while at the same time ensuring near complete control over the manufacturing and sustainment processes. All in all, the appearance of this new attack helicopter provides further evidence of the rapid progress made by Turkey’s domestic defence industries. No how long it will actually take to actually realize this progress in an operational form, that’s another matter.