One month after the battle of Marawi ended plans are now afoot to enlarge the Philippine Air Force’s rotary fleet with 24 attack helicopters. A government media portal broke the news of the acquisition on November 23 after President Duterte mentioned buying additional helicopters during a speech at the Army General Hospital two days prior.
A spokesperson from the Department of National Defense (DND) explained the attack helicopters are part of a long-term modernization program known as “Second Horizon” that begins next year. The so-called “First Horizon” was already accomplished between 2013 until 2017. The third and final leg of Horizon stretches from 2023 to 2028. It remains unclear where the PAF is going to buy attack helicopters.
The Philippine military’s preoccupation with battling armed groups in rural areas makes its rotorcraft indispensable. For decades the Bell UH-1 remained the flying workhorse of all branches. For close air support, however, the Philippine Army in particular relies on a small collection of MD 520MG gunships armed with rockets. These were used during the battle of Marawi along with FA-50 jets, OV-10 Broncos, and prop-driven Marchetti SF-260 trainers converted to bombers.
During the Aquino administration (2010-2016) the DND oversaw the purchase of a few PZL Sokol and AW109 helicopters. It was the latter model that participated in Marawi where it deployed armed with rocket pods to bombard terrorist occupied buildings.
It now appears the PAF want a genuine attack helicopter designed to carry multiple weapons and can loiter over a battle area. The DND insists the new acquisition of two dozen attack helicopters is in its opening stages and still requires the President’s approval.
The current state of the attack helicopter market isn’t very encouraging. Most countries can only afford to buy small batches. When South Korea ordered 36 AH-64E Apache Guardians in 2013, for example, each gunship cost an estimated $41 million. When Qatar ordered its own AH-64E’s in 2014, the total amount reached $2.4 billion. By comparison, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) budget for 2017 barely reached $3 billion.
Unless the PAF is willing to settle on Airbus H145M‘s carrying guns and rockets, there are a mere handful of viable models worth buying. The Philippine military’s fondness for the Bell UH-series suggests its lethal cousin the AH-1Z is a strong contender. On the other hand, the PAF’s strong affinity for US kit points to the AH-64E as a premium alternative. But its cost, just like the Euro-Turkish A129/T129, is prohibitive for a budget conscious air arm.
If European and US-made helicopters are out of the question, then perhaps Manila’s pivot toward Beijing and Moscow offers some clues on what the PAF is looking for. If a helicopter suited for counterinsurgency is needed, the Russian Mi-35–descendant of the original Hind gunship–is a credible choice. Not only does it carry a lot of ordnance, but it can be flown with third party avionics as well as airlift troops in and out of battle. A training program for Filipino pilots must be in place though to familiarize them with the Mi-35.
Whether the PAF bother to look for a gunship in China is a matter of speculation. The Chinese Z-10 helicopter has been in service for a handful of years now but is completely unproven. It didn’t attract any customers even after it was lent to Pakistan for testing. The Philippines and China have no agreements so far pertaining to aerospace or military technology.
So few details about the PAF’s attack helicopter program are available at the moment it may take years before real progress is made. In the meantime, the PAF has other priorities like buying drones together with a squadron of ground attack planes.