The Philippines is taking delivery of Turkey's T129 ATAK helicopters. Image: Facebook

After an arduous and protracted process, the Philippines finally acquired the first two of six Turkish-made T129 ATAK helicopters.

This acquisition is part of a US$269 million government-to-government deal between the Philippines and Turkey that was signed in July 2020. The T129 ATAK is based on the AgustaWestland A129 Mangusta design. The 15th Strike Wing of the Philippine Air Force will operate the helicopters.

These newer helicopters will complement the Philippines’ existing fleet of armed MG-520s, AH-1S Cobras and AW109E helicopters used in counterinsurgency operations against Moro separatists, Communist insurgents and terror groups.

The Philippines’ acquisition plans were initially put into jeopardy by US sanctions on Turkey due to the latter’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. The T129 ATAK uses a US-made LHTEC T800-4A, which is an export variant of the CTS800 engine jointly developed by Honeywell and Rolls-Royce.

However, in May 2021 the US granted the export license needed for Turkey to sell the helicopters to the Philippines. US approval was necessary because the helicopters are powered by US engines.

The arrival of the T129s marks the fulfillment of a long-held goal of the Philippine military to acquire dedicated attack helicopters for counterinsurgency purposes. On several measures, they are far more capable than the Philippines’ current MG-520 and newer AW-109E armed helicopters.

The Turkish helicopters are armed with a 20mm autocannon, can carry a variety of missiles and bombs, and are a viable launch platform for the Elbit Systems’ 70mm Guided Advanced Tactical Rocket (GATR) laser-guided rocket system, which the Philippines plans to acquire in a separate project.

For many years, the Philippine Air Force relied on up-armed MG-520s and new AW-109Es for close air support. However, the 2017 Battle of Marawi against ISIS-aligned militants showed that these helicopters were too lightly armed and lacked the weapons stores needed to take on determined enemies entrenched in sprawling urban terrain.

Moreover, the shortage of guided munitions during the battle led to significant collateral damage and friendly-fire incidents, the most tragic of which resulted in the deaths of 10 soldiers due to an errant government airstrike.

A soldier rides a bicycle past bombed-out buildings in what was the main battle area in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on October 25, 2017. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

The Philippines thus began looking for stopgap measures for a dedicated attack helicopter. In 2019, the Philippines received two surplus AH-1S Cobra attack helicopters donated by Jordan. These units were the first dedicated attack helicopters in Philippine service. While rather piecemeal, the acquisition was a much-needed boost to the Philippine military’s limited capabilities. 

In 2020, the US offered the Philippines a choice between six AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters for $450 million or six AH-64E Apaches for $1.6 billion. Those high price tags, however, likely forced the Philippines to consider other, lower-cost options.

The Philippines also considered acquiring Russian attack helicopters. Manila could have acquired the Mi-24 Hind from Russia, although high costs, interoperability issues and the threat of US sanctions conspired against the procurement.

Despite that, the Philippines has decided to push on with the acquisition of 17 Mi-17 heavy transport helicopters from Russia in a $249 million deal signed last November, as the Philippines made its initial payment this January before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the US’ retaliatory sanctions.

The Philippines’ acquisition of the T129 ATAK helicopter reflects the country’s diversifying defense suppliers and maturing foreign policy.

While the US remains the country’s traditional defense supplier, the high costs of US-made equipment, the political conditions the US attaches to its arms sales and possible forthcoming sanctions over the Philippines’ poor human rights record may have influenced Manila’s decision to diversify its defense suppliers.

Apart from the purchase of Turkey’s T129, other big-ticket items the Philippines intends to get from alternative defense partners include corvettes from South Korea, fighter jets from Sweden, missile batteries from India, surface-to-air missiles from Israel and submarines from France. Such purchases aim to reduce its reliance on US security guarantees and equipment.

Such a move may also reflect the country’s increasing uneasiness with its longstanding alliance with the US. While the US and the Philippines have been treaty allies since 1951, the power asymmetry between the two partners has been a stumbling block in their relations.

The purchase of the T129 ATAK from Turkey may thus be interpreted as a small but incremental step to shore up the Philippines’ own military capabilities, and gradually wean itself off US overdependence by diversifying its defense partners while at the same time preserving its critical alliance with the US.