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Should The Philippine Military Buy More Sokol Helicopters?

March 10, 2018

Via Wikimedia Commons.

As part of its long-term modernization plans the Philippines’ Department of National Defense (DND) signed a contract for 16 new Bell 412EPI helicopters in December last year and announced the deal this February. The airframes were supposed to be delivered by the Canadian subsidiary of Bell Helicopter between 2019 and 2020.

It’s unfortunate members of the Canadian government took issue with the purchase and wanted to scrutinize whether or not the rotorcraft might threaten civilian lives in a counterinsurgency role. Always sensitive to criticism, the Duterte administration responded by cancelling the deal. This leaves the Philippine military without modern analogues of their favorite UH-1 helos.

On February 8 the DND released a statement to justify its need for Bell airframes. “As its designation ‘Combat Utility Helicopter or CUH’ connotes, the Bell CUH 412 is a utility helicopter and, contrary to what some parties mistakenly believe, its mission is to save lives,” it read.

While the DND’s remarks didn’t salvage the deal it did inform the Canadian government that procuring from other sources is a possible option.

The Philippine military has relied on Bell rotorcraft for more than 50 years now. Even when the separate branches acquired different foreign models, the UH-1 and its variants still comprised the bulk of the institution’s helicopters. The implications of the scuttled February deal are quite dire since any risks to Bell Helicopter’s future contracts with the Philippines could endanger spare parts deliveries and even an ill-defined attack helicopter project.

The importance of Bell 412EPI’s to the military’s rotor fleet can’t be understated. The armed forces already received eight new Bell 412EPI’s between 2012 and 2015. If the additional Bell 412EPIs did arrive on schedule, these would total 24 helicopters, augmenting the current UH-1’s in service. But this is no longer happening.

The Bell 412EP in military use. Via Wikimedia Commons.

All isn’t lost, however, and the DND do have alternatives to choose from. Between 2012 to 2013, for example, it received eight PZL W-3 Sokol helicopters from the aerospace firm Leonardo. The Sokol was originally a Polish derivative of the prolific Soviet-era Mi-2. Constant upgrades make it a true workhorse for its clients who can order a Sokol for either civilian or government use.

There are many striking parallels between the Bell 412EPI and the W-3 Sokol. Both are twin engine models with four blade rotors and have cabins large enough for transporting a dozen passengers each. The Bell 412EPI and the Sokol can perform search-and-rescue operations, deliver troops to a combat zone, and fulfill small logistical tasks. From avionics to flight ceilings, the capabilities of both are almost the same.

Why the DND didn’t place follow-on orders for more Sokols is a mystery but one reason is the longstanding preference for American-made UH-series helicopters, whose pivoting door guns are favored by crews and passengers alike during combat operations. The Sokol, on the other hand, has narrow side doors that can’t be exited from if these are used as machine gun ports. Its reputation in the Philippines suffered as well after separate crashes in 2014 and 2016 while transporting passengers.

But the W-3 Sokol does have a crucial advantage over the Bell 412EPI. Adaptable to a fault, the Sokol is also suited for providing close air support with an ordnance payload greater than most utility helicopters. When configured as a gunship–called the W-3PL Głuszec–it can be armed with a machine gun or cannon underneath the cockpit and carry up to four separate rocket pods or missiles. This qualifies it for the Philippine military’s search for a helicopter gunship.

Another attractive feature of the W-3 Sokol is cost. The doomed contract for the 16 Bell 412EPI utility helicopters reached a total of $233 million. While the cost per helicopter was never revealed, it’s safe to assume each Bell 412EPI converted for military use is more expensive than its $10 million civilian counterpart. The eight W-3 Sokol’s ordered by the DND several years ago cost far less at just several million dollars each.

A W-3 Sokol of the Philippine Air Force. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Factoring the inflation of prices over time, if the Philippine military wanted to it can still afford at least two dozen W-3 Sokols with new Pratt & Whitney engines for the same total amount as the Bell 412EPI’s. Given its lack of fixed wing transports and usable airstrips, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) has an over-reliance on helicopters for disaster relief and emergency rescue, logistics, and transport missions. In the absence of the Bell 412EPI the W-3 Sokol appears to be an attractive option that suits the country’s climate and geography.

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