T129B Phase 2 Makes First Flight with Advanced Defensive Aids System

The newest version of Turkey’s indigenously produced helicopter, the T129 ATAK, has made its first flight. Known interchangeably as the T129B Phase 2 and T129B2 the focus of this upgrade is to increase survivability against enemy air defense systems, improve situational awareness, and also decrease reliance on foreign parts.

In the name of survival, the aircraft adds a domestically produced defensive aids system (DAS) which consists of a laser warning receiver and an electronic warfare system itself composed of a radar warning receiver and a jammer. This allows the aircraft to detect when it is being tracked by hostile air defenses and inform when to apply countermeasures like flares or jammers. The focus on defense against radar-based systems is interesting as such weapons aren’t found in the hands of insurgents like the PKK or SDF which the Turks are typically engaged with. Only a single T129 has been brought down in combat by Kurdish cannon/small arms fire. This suggests the Turks are anticipating contact with Syrian Arab Army surface-to-air missiles.

A Phase 1 T129B without the DAS installed. Compared to the title picture you can notice the absence of modules installed around the nose and on the tips of the wing studs. (Photo: Pete Webber)

To improve situational awareness the aircraft’s primary thermal sensor is being replaced by Aselesan’s CATS sensor which boasts improved detection range. A weakness of the in-service T129B is that it’s radio system has a relatively short range. The Phase 2 modification resolves this with an improved radio set allowing the helicopter to better act as part of a networked combat team. While a radar has been tested successfully on the T129 the Turkish military has opted not to introduce it with the upgrade package as it would take up too much payload space.

Compared to many attack helicopters the ATAK is quite lightweight so compromises must be made. Turkey is working on developing a purely indigenous (as the T129 is actually a licensed version of the Italian A129) heavy attack helicopter that is almost twice the mass of ATAK, appropriately named the ATAK-II. This isn’t expected to fly until 2024 and in the meantime, Turkey will begin retroactively upgrading about half its T129 fleet to Phase 2 standard.

As Turkey becomes increasingly politically isolated from the West reliance on foreign technology is becoming a liability. While the most important part, the turboshaft engines, remain American made Phase 2 has replaced many foreign parts with domestically produced ones. Reportedly the 3-barrel 20mm M197 cannon has been replaced by a local copy.