*

Taiwan to Maintain Fleet of AH-1W SuperCobras Through 8-year Contract

Evan Berridge
Evan Berridge
Evan is an analyst specializing in Indo-Pacific affairs and has over 5 years of experience as a freelance writer.

More From Me

The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense announced an eight-year contract to keep their current fleet of SuperCobra AH-1W attack helicopters in service, extending their operational lifespan.

The Taiwanese government is seeking a vendor for a strategic maintenance system worth around $113 million (NT3.67 billion). A tender will open in July of this year, with the contract running from September until the end of 2031. The current maintenance contract is valued at around $38 million (NT 1.26 billion) and will expire at the end of this year.

In October 2020, the United States Marine Corps retired its SuperCobras in favor of the AH-1Z Viper. This decision made it more difficult for Taiwan to acquire parts and technical support needed for maintenance since the SuperCobra is no longer in service.

The AH-1 SuperCobra

The Bell AH-1W SuperCobra is an attack helicopter powered by twin engines, based on the original AH-1 Cobra. The primary role of the SuperCobra is to strike ground targets, such as infantry and armored vehicles, including but not limited to transports, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and main battle tanks, structures, fortifications, and watercraft.

The SuperCobra went into development in the late 1980s, specifically for the United States Marine Corps, as they requested a twin-engine version of the AH-1 Cobra, developed in the 1960s for use by the US Army, which retired it in 2001. The reason for twin engines was operational capabilities, safety at sea, and a greater payload. This variant was called the SeaCobra.

The helicopter has fought in campaigns such as the U.S. intervention in Yugoslavia and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The SuperCobra is currently in service with Taiwan, Iran, and Turkey.

The SuperCobra loadout consists of a 20mm M197 three-barrel cannon resting in the A/A49E-7 turret which can hold 750 rounds, Hydra 70 or AGR-20 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems (APKWS) mounted in launchers with a seven or 19 rocket capacity, and Zuni 5-inch rockets mounted in two launchers carrying four each.

Additional armaments may include up to eight tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided (TOW) missiles, specifically the BGM-71 TOW, carrying four on each side mounted on hardpoints. Lastly, the SuperCobra may also be outfitted with air-to-surface AGM 114 Hellfire missiles and short-range anti-aircraft AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles with a capacity of two.

Hellfire missiles under inspection. Source: US Army

The SuperCobra has a few variants, notably the AH-1T, which features improved transmission and engines; the AH-1 Whiskey, which also features more powerful engines and a greater payload; and an export variant, the AH-1J International. The Cobra and SuperCobra are based on the UH-1 airframe, and they share common parts.

The AH-1W SuperCobra is powered by two General Electric T700-401 engines, traveling at a speed of 220 mph (350 km/h) with a service ceiling of 12,200 ft (3,700 m) and a range of 365 mi (587 km).

Taiwan’s Current Fleet

Taiwan purchased 42 helicopters from the United States from 1991–1997, delivered in batches over six years, and ordered 21 more in 1997, with the last one delivered in 2001. Before operating the SuperCobra, the Republic of China’s Army used the UH-1H Iroquois “Huey,” fitted with 2.75-inch rockets, for rescue and combat missions. Taiwan retired its fleet of Hueys in 2019, favoring the UH-60M “Blackhawk” for rescue missions.

AH-64E 822 from the ROCA. Source: Tobias Hsu

Taiwan also uses the AH-64E Apache, operating a total of 30 starting in 2011. The Apache is faster, can carry more weapons, and has more durable armor; however, it is heavier, takes up more space on flight decks, is more expensive to purchase, operate, and maintain, and consumes more fuel. The AH-1Ws serve in the 602nd Air Calvary Brigades, divided into the 1st and 2nd attack helicopter groups. In contrast, the AH-64Es are in service with the 601st Air Calvary Brigade and are also divided into two attack helicopter groups. The 601st is tasked with defending northern Taiwan, and the 602nd is part of the Army Aviation Special Command.

AH-1W 505 from the ROCA. Source: Toshiro Aoki

Taiwan outfits both attack helicopter platforms with a mix of the BGM-71 TOWs, the K3, L, and C variants of the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and the AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-92 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as well as the standard 20mm M197 cannon on the SuberCobra and the 30mm M320 Chain gun on the AH-64E. The Hellfires Taiwan uses have a range of 4.9 miles (7.8 km) except for the K3 variant, which is around 6.8 miles (11 km). The older C variant cannot penetrate reactive armor on tanks, whereas the newer K3 and Longbow variants can. The Hellfire features 20-pound (9 kg)  tandem-shaped charge high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds, with the C variant using an 18-pound warhead The L variant features self-guidance and insensitive munitions on its warhead. All variants Taiwan uses weigh around 100–110 pounds (45–49 kg) and travel at around Mach 1.3 (995 mph). The L variant is used on the AH-64, and the K3 and C variants are used on the AH-1Ws.

The BGM-71 TOW A/B types used by Taiwan can penetrate 600 mm of armor, traveling just below Mach at Mach 0.9 (690 mph). The TOW requires an arming distance of around 70 yards (65 meters), and the A variant has a maximum range of 1.86 miles (3 km), with the B variant extending the range to 2.3 miles (3.7 km). The AIM-9 Sidewinder has a range of 0.6 to 22 miles (965–3540 meters), travels around Mach 2.5 (1918 mph), and features a 20-pound (9.4 kg) fragmentation warhead. The AIM-92 has a range of up to 2.9 miles (3 km), travels at Mach 2.2 (1687 mph), and has a 6.6-pound (3 kg) high explosive fragmentation warhead.

Analysis

Taiwan’s choice to stick with its fleet of AH-1W SuperCobras could be for several reasons, but the most likely is operational efficiency .

Deciding to maintain the current fleet of more than 60 AH-1W SuperCobras carries some advantages, such as familiarity, budget, and fleet size. Taiwan has operated the AH-1W since the 1990s, and they have likely grown accustomed to how it operates and have had time to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures to conduct ground support operations. Switching to a different platform to replace the SuperCobra could set Taiwan back in terms of operability, as it takes more time to integrate and improve a newer platform. Finding another replacement may also be difficult due to the Chinese pressuring other nations not to sell weapons to Taiwan.

Maintaining the SuperCobras would also be cheaper. As Taiwan undergoes upgrades to all branches of its military, saving money could have been a factor. For instance, the Apache is more expensive to operate, purchase, and maintain. If Taiwan opts to purchase more Apache helicopters or adopt another platform, its fleet size may shrink, even if the capabilities per single helicopter increase.

Continuing to use the Cobra platform may also make it easier to acquire the AH-1Z Viper, the improved version of the SuperCobra.

The United States Marine Corps operates the AH-1Zs over the Apache platform due to their smaller profile and size, reduced weight, and increased maneuverability. This makes it easier to store aboard amphibious ships such as the Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) or the Landing Helicopter Deck (LHD). Taiwan could benefit from the AH-1’s features to take off and land for expeditionary missions, and operate in limited spaces to launch missions from adhoc sites during any conflict.

Operating both the Cobra and Apache platforms carries an advantage in broadening Taiwanese combat capabilities, as the Cobra and Apache platforms are designed for two similar yet slightly different operations. The Cobras could be better suited for fast attack missions, requiring a greater quantity of aircraft, whereas the Apache could serve in more heavy-duty missions since it has a greater payload and armor.

However, sticking to the older Cobra platform could have some downsides. China may develop airframes with better combat and operational capabilities, which could put SuperCobras and Taiwan at a disadvantage. The present lack of spare parts could worsen if Taiwan cannot manufacture or acquire the needed parts, which could put some SuperCobras out of service, decreasing overall combat capabilities. Another disadvantage of the aging airframe is the increased chance of breakdowns or accidents, which could result in pilot injuries or deaths.

Latest