THE Philippine Air Force (PAF) will be literally greeting communist insurgents and terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group terrorists literally with a “massive bang” this 2023, as its capability to conduct close-air support has been greatly enhanced with the arrival of two more Turkish-made T-129 “Atak” helicopters, bristling with high-tech and sophisticated weaponry, and effectively increasing to four the number of these rotary-winged aircraft in its inventory.
Armed with a three-barreled 20mm automatic cannon in the chin and a precision-guided launcher (Cirit), which fires a laser-guided 70mm rocket, and certified to be capable of firing air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles, the T-129 is an intimidating aircraft, especially with weapons that could fire in one brutal gigantic crescendo.
The T-129s are the first purposely-acquired attack helicopter of the PAF, which has grown accustomed to flying lightly armed gunships for ground-support missions.
Lightly armed in this case means being armed with only the conventional .50 caliber machine guns and rocket launchers firing largely unguided projectiles.
Mission: Hunt and obliterate
WHILE deadly to its intended targets, PAF helicopters armed with these weapons configuration simply cannot compete with the more modern and heavily armed T-129s as this aircraft is designed purposely to hunt and obliterate ground targets.
The Turkish Aerospace Industries T-129 was acquired by the PAF with the approval of the Department of National Defense (DND) as part of the efforts to beef up its fleet of lightly armed helicopters like the McDonnell Douglas MG-520 and AgustaWestland 109E, which are being used for counterterrorism and ground support missions.
The first two T-129 units were delivered last March 9, while the second batch of two were delivered on November 24, and ceremonially blessed by President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. at the Malacañang Palace last December 9.
All four T-129 attack helicopters are assigned to the 15th Strike Wing based in Sangley Point, Cavite. The remaining two units are expected to be delivered to the PAF by 2024. The budget for the six T-129s is placed at around P13.8 billion.
The DND, then headed by Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, signed the contract for acquisition in July 2020.
Ready for dispatch
THE PAF’s T-129 is a twin-engine, tandem seat, multi-role, all-weather attack helicopter based on the Agusta A-129 Mangusta platform. The first two of the T-129s are now “fully mission capable.”
Meanwhile, the first two T-129s, delivered last March 9, were categorized by the PAF in May as also fully mission capable. This means that the air assets are ready for their role as “strike aircraft, with the crew and the pilots done with the training and ready to be employed in areas needed.”
The two T-129s were declared fully mission capable shortly after the Sanay Tudla 2 exercises, held from May 16 to 24 at the Col. Ernesto Rabina Air Base in Capas, Tarlac.
However, the Air Force did not provide the geographic location of the two attack helicopters for security reasons. But it would be safe to say that these aircraft are near those areas where the military is conducting constant security operations.
PAF spokesperson Col. Ma. Consuelo Castillo earlier said the T-129 project is under Horizon 2 of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Program. The aircraft were procured using government-to-government mode under Republic Act 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Act.
T-129 missions, roles under PAF
CASTILLO said the T-129s will be utilized for territorial defense, aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, counter-insurgency combat operations and combat support operations.
“Its roles are close air support, precision strike, deep strike, suppression of enemy air defense, security/urban warfare and air-to-air warfare. T-129 is a twin-engine, tandem seat, multi-role, all-weather attack helicopter,” she added.
Aside from the weapons mentioned earlier, Castillo said the T-129s are capable of doing all these missions and roles as it is equipped with highly advanced sensors and targeting systems, which include integrated aerial fire support system, targeting sight unit, night vision device, helmet mounted-display, helmet integrated cueing system, electronic warfare system, missile warning system and countermeasure dispenser system for chaff and flares.
Castillo said the T-129s have a cruise speed of 120 knots or around 222.24 kilometers per hour and range of 250 nautical miles, which is equivalent to 463 kilometers. The PAF spokesperson added the T-129s have an endurance of around two and half hours before needing to land and refuel.
“The capabilities of a T-129 are very far and different from the old helicopters; it has a 20-millimeter three-barreled gun on the nose, it has a sensor system, it is an all-weather platform and is designed for advanced attack and reconnaissance missions in hot and high environments and rough geography in both day and night conditions,” Castillo said.
Logistics train of T-129 secured
THE PAF spokesperson also said the weapon, logistic support, training and other packages are included in the budget. “These are the things that we [made] sure of before we acquired [the aircraft] so that we can maintain it for another 10, 20, or 30 years,” she pointed out. And as a force multiplier in the battlefield, these helicopters will be an integral component supporting all ground and maritime operations, Castillo said.
“These helicopters will complement the capability of the PAF and the AFP to provide an enhanced surface strike platform to support ground operating troops,” she added.
MEANWHILE, President Marcos, who was the guest-of-honor at the ceremonial blessing of the second batch of T-129s last December 9, expressed his support for the ongoing modernization of the PAF.
He hopes that PAF’s recent advancement will drive it to enhance its defense capabilities consistently, perform its duties effectively and protect the nation with vigor and pride. At the same time, the Commander-in-Chief hailed the invaluable contributions of the PAF and the AFP to the nation’s external defense, internal security operations, as well as disaster relief and response operations.
Marcos also expects the T-129s to improve the Air Force’s operational readiness and responsiveness.
PAF chief’s major roles in Battle of Marawi
WHILE the PAF ended the year well in terms of capability enhancements, the same may also be said of its leadership, as Maj. Gen. Stephen P. Parreño, who replaced Lt. Gen. Connor Anthony Canlas Sr. as Air Force chief last December 20. Parreño fulfilled a major logistics role in the five-month Battle of Marawi.
In the entire duration of the campaign, which started May 23 and ended on October 15, 2017, it was learned that Parreño flew Lockheed C-130 “Hercules” cargo planes repeatedly for resupply missions needed to sustain military operations amid the raging conflict.
“Notably, he was greatly involved in the air mobility efforts of the PAF during the Battle of Marawi where he flew as the flight commander of C-130 flights, flying to and from Guam and Arizona to the Philippines, to pick up and transport logistics for the sustainment of the ongoing joint operations,” Castillo said.
Prior to his appointment as PAF chief, Parreño served key positions in the Air Force, including stints as 220th Airlift Wing commander, Air Mobility Command deputy commander, Air Logistics Command deputy commander, Tactical Operations 3 group commander, chief-of-staff air staff, and vice commander of the service to name a few.
Parreño is a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1991, in which he was the lone “Starman” (a highly distinguished cadet for both academic performance and conduct) and graduated as class salutatorian. He is also a member of PAF Flying School Class 1993 and he graduated Number 3 in this class.
Parreño replaced Canlas, a member of PMA Class of 1989, who retired after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 56 last December 20. Canlas served for more than 38 years at the time of his retirement.
“He grew his wings in the PAF as a skillful and competent pilot, officer and an athlete. His leadership and managerial skills enabled him to handle key leadership and management positions at the tactical, operational, and strategic units and levels of the PAF,” Castillo said of the new PAF chief.
She added the entire PAF welcomes the new leadership with eagerness and high hopes of reaching new heights and become a credible and agile force, adaptable to modern warfare and responsive to national and regional security and development.