Rooivalk Loses the Turkish Bid

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After more than a year of protracted negotiations, setbacks, delays and enough political intrigue to write the script for an entire season of The West Wing, Turkey’s attack helicopter tender has finally been awarded. The winner is Italy’s AgustaWestland, producer of the A-129 International. Denel’s Rooivalk, which was the only other helicopter to be shortlisted, has once again emerged as the losing bidder, a situation which is becoming all too familiar. Yet this was probably Denel’s best chance yet to sell the Rooivalk to a foreign bidder, so what went wrong?
The first thing to remember is that when it comes to buying large and expensive batches of weaponry, politics is everything. Very rarely are things decided by a straight comparison of bids while choosing the one with the best features, instead the military gets to choose its minimum requirements after which the government of the day picks out whichever bid meets those requirements and will do the most to further the government’s interests. Thus the bidder who promises to create the most local jobs, to provide the best incentives (like offsets) and will do the best job of improving relations with a given country, will win. The latter is important, since a country’s arms purchases are often an indication of who they regard their allies to be and who they don’t mind being dependent on in the future. It’s in this light that you can understand part of the reason why the SANDF has not even considered acquiring equipment from the US, with all its equipment orders going to European countries.

With this in mind, the Turkish decision begins to make sense. On paper, the Rooivalk is clearly better than the A-129. Though it is heavier (its empty weight is the same as the A-129’s maximum take-off weight), it has 25% greater range, higher speed, the same rate of climb and the ability to carry 16 anti-tank missiles, as opposed to the A-129’s limit of 12. It’s also easier to maintain during front-line operations, requires less supporting infrastructure and requires far less development to integrate a Longbow-style MMW radar. However, it has four major flaws, the combination of which killed it in this competition: Cost, weapons, engines and South African origin.

Those extra capabilities don’t come cheap, so the per-unit cost of the Rooivalk is distinctly higher than that of the competing A-129. Although the Turkish government is claiming that this was the deciding factor in going for the A-129, I don’t really buy it. Turkey spends over $4 billion every year on defence procurement alone, giving them the luxury of buying the more expensive option in search of better capabilities (they’re buying 100 F-35s) without the need for penny-pinching. I think the real reason lies elsewhere.

So perhaps it was the weapons? Unlike the A-129, the Rooivalk has yet to integrate the American Hellfire and TOW anti-tank missiles, despite the end of the embargo. Instead, Denel punts two local competitors, the Mokopa and Ingwe, which match their American counterparts in capabilities but have never been tested in combat. It also makes no sense for a country like Turkey, which already operates a variety of Hellfire and TOW missiles, to acquire a new and risky missile type. In response, Denel has fallen back on the Rooivalk’s use of NATO-standard systems and hardpoints, claiming that it would therefore be easy to integrate American weapons on the aircraft if needed. This may well be true, but it does represent an added risk and might contribute to a longer development time.

But it was the engines that were perhaps the Rooivalk’s greatest vulnerability. It is powered by two Makila 1K2 turboshaft engines, produced by Turbomeca of France, the country with which Turkey (in a case of the unluckiest timing ever) suspended military relations in November after the French parliament voted to call the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turkish soldiers genocide. This was a tough blow for Denel, since the tiff over Armenia made Turkey less likely to want to buy anything that relied on parts from France, a situation which wasn’t helped by the intimation by a French politician that his country might veto the sale of any Makila engines to Turkey.

Finally, the Rooivalk’s status as a South African product didn’t do it any favours. Politically, there’s very little that Turkey wants from South Africa, aside from a commitment to ignore the Kurds and never say anything about the Armenian genocide. But it’s got a lot to gain from wooing European countries such as Italy in order to gather the support that would improve its chances of eventually getting admitted into the EU. There’s also an element of added risk, especially with Denel in the awful state it’s in whilst AgustaWestland is comparatively healthy with a secured future, something that’s vitally important if you want continued support and upgrades for the next two decades.

In the end, I think it was the combination of the engine issue with the political preference for closer ties with Italy that sunk Denel’s bid. Together, they made any decision in favour of the Rooivalk exceedingly unlikely, something I think Denel understood when they announced a week or so ago that they’d withdraw their bid unless a decision was made by the end of April.

So what does this mean for the future of the Rooivalk? Unfortunately, not much that’s good (though I’ve been wrong before). Even if Denel and ATE develop the mooted Rooivalk Lite (or Rooivalk II) that I’ve previously mentioned, it’s unlikely they’ll achieve export success thanks to combinations of the above four factors. With the SAAF showing no intention of buying more Rooivalks than the pitifully-small number of twelve that it currently has, the production line will probably close in a year or so. The twelve in service will soldier on for the next fifteen to twenty years, receiving upgrades as required, before being retired and replaced with a modern Western design. Thus a fascinating chapter in South Africa’s defence history and the single greatest achievement of its arms industry will likely fade into history as a sad example of lost potential and rotten luck.