Asia prioritizes helicopter purchases to meet new threats and humanitarian challenges
Japan's decision to counter China's military buildup, including strengthening the defense of its southern islands by purchasing the Osprey, is perhaps indicative of how critical the helicopter has become to nations in the Asia-Pacific region.
While only a handful of countries in the region will be able to afford the complex tiltrotor, many of Japan's neighbors also have been taking steps to invest in their helicopter fleets, whether for defense or humanitarian purposes. Programs to procure more-capable utility helicopters are taking priority, with a majority of nations looking to European and U.S. manufacturers to meet their needs. Japan looks set to become the second export customer for the Osprey, after Israel, but Tokyo also is investing in other helicopter capabilities with the recent purchase of its first Izumo-class helicopter destroyer, a 27,000-ton helicopter carrier that is seen by some of its neighbors as one step away from a full-blown aircraft carrier.
Japan is a customer for theAH-64 Apache as well, but acquisition of the aircraft have been slow, with just 13 in service so far out of an original order for around 50. Boeing estimates that this number will now shrink to around 36. Japan also is looking to domestic industry to provide for its helicopter requirements. Like the Apache, introduction of the Kawasaki OH-1 Ninja has been slow due to budgetary concerns, and the type is likely to fall far short of the 200 aircraft production run originally envisaged for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces (JGSDF) to replace its OH-6 Loach fleet. An indigenous helicopter is also likely to replace Japan's large UH-1 Huey fleet through the UH-X, which will be developed by Kawasaki in the coming years.
South Korea is taking the indigenous development approach as well, with the introduction of the Korea Aerospace Industries' (KAI)into operational service with the army and, more recently, the country's national police service. The type will replace an aging fleet of Hughes-built MD500 and Bell UH-1H utility helicopters. KAI, which developed the aircraft in conjunction with (now Helicopters), believes the aircraft has export potential. The type is now being marketed outside Korea by a joint company, KAI-EC, which forecasts that it could sell around 300 export KUHs for military and civil roles in Asia during the next decade.
The type will be joined later by the Light Armed Helicopter (LAH), for which KAI currently is searching for a development partner; this means that the army's helicopter ranks will predominantly feature locally produced helicopters along with a handful of Boeing-built Chinooks and recently ordered AH-64E Apache Block IIIs. Other nations are following South Korea's move toward purchasing attack helicopters. The first AH-64E Apaches for Taiwan recently arrived, and Indonesia has eight aircraft on order. Malaysia is also in the market for an attack helicopter, with Eurocopter hoping to break into the region with its EC665 Tiger following its recent success with a contract for the EC725, to replace that country's fleet ofS-61 Nuri utility helicopters.
Thailand's armed forces have also been rapidly investing in new helicopter types in a bid to modernize an aging fleet. However, its procurement process has been rather haphazard, with the purchase of more than five different types in the last five years, with orders for the Airbus UH-72 Lakota and EC725, theAW139, and Sikorsky's and UH-60M Black Hawk.
Despite facing a huge clean-up bill following the disaster of Typhoon Haiyun and a high level of national debt, the Philippines defense ministry has been working to strengthen the country's helicopter capabilities, looking to AgustaWestland to provide AW109 light attack helicopters, and the SW-4 Sokol twin-engined helicopter produced by the company's Polish affiliate, PZL-Swidnik. Vietnam has similarly purchased the EC225 for use by the country's naval air arm.
But while China may be influencing countries to buy Western helicopters, other nations are looking to China. In November, Cambodia took delivery of 12 Harbin Z-9 utility helicopters, while Pakistan operates a maritime variant of the type.
China is now introducing the Z-10 attack helicopter into wider use, while the Z-19—which features a shrouded tail rotor as a result of its experience with the Z-9—is also garnering more attention. Recent images from China show the aircraft with what appears to be a mast-mounted radar system, allowing the use of a Hellfire-like weapon. There have also been recent flights of the so-called Z-20 utility helicopter, equivalent to Sikorsky's Black Hawk, a type that, if mass-produced, could allow the country to reduce its reliance on Russia for types such as the Mi-17 on which the PLA remains heavily reliant.