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Bell Proposes to License Build Its AH-1Z Viper Attack Helicopter to South Korea

Bell, the manufacturer of the AH-1Z AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter currently deployed by the U.S. Marine Corps sent its offer to the South Korean Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) on Thursday, according to the Korea JoongAng Daily. The state arms procurement agency received an official offer of technology transfer from the manufacturer of a foreign attack helicopter preferred by the Republic of Korea Marine Corps (ROKMC), according to a conservative People Power Party (PPP) lawmaker on Monday. This is not the first time that Bell has made an offer of technology transfer to DAPA.

The proposal entails technological collaboration with Korean Air for domestic production of the Viper under license, similar to the KF-16 multirole fighter, which is a licensed Korean version of American aerospace and defense corporation General Dyanmics’ F-16 produced by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the country’s sole aircraft manufacturer. Bell’s third attempt to get DAPA’s attention represents a potential plot twist to the agency’s much-criticized decision last year to equip the Marine Corps with 24 domestic attack helicopters.

The agency announced in April 2021 that it selected the attack variant of KAI’s Marineon as the Korean Marine Corps’ future attack helicopter. The deal is expected to cost 1.6 trillion won ($1.16 billion) and is part of a larger acquisition plan to create the Republic of Korea Marine Corps’ first-ever air wing, composed of a squadron of attack helicopters and two squadrons of regular Marineon transport utility helicopters. The air wing will operate from the Navy’s Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships. All of the Marine Corps’ Marineon helicopters were grounded in late 2018, following a crash that led to five deaths.

Retired Lieutenant General Lee Seung-do, who told the National Assembly’s defense committee in October 2020 that the Marines Corps “does not want an armed variant of the Marineon, but an attack helicopter that is maneuverable and survivable. Critics fear that the armed variant of the Marineon falls short compared to other dedicated attack helicopters. Originally designed as a transport helicopter, the Marineon’s airframe is wider than its competitors, making it more vulnerable to enemy fire, while its maximum speed of 279 kilometers (173 miles) per hour is significantly slower than the 300 kilometer-per-hour speed of the Viper.

The Bell AH-1Z Viper is a twin-engine attack helicopter, based on the AH-1W SuperCobra, designed and produced by the American aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter. Being one of the latest members of the prolific Bell Huey family, it is also called “Zulu Cobra”, based on the military phonetic alphabet pronunciation of its variant letter. The airframe was extensively redesigned to maximise crashworthiness; measures include energy-absorbing landing gear, fuel vapor inerting systems, self-sealing fuel tanks, energy-attenuating crashworthy seating, and a mass retention design approach applied to many major components.

The AH-1Z is equipped with a pair of redesigned stub wings, these being substantially longer than those of the preceding SuperCobra. Each one has an additional wingtip station for a missile such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder. Each stub wing has two other stations for 2.75-inch (70 mm) Hydra 70 rocket pods, or AGM-114 Hellfire quad missile launchers. The AN/APG-78 Longbow fire control radar can also be mounted on a wingtip station. Underneath the nose of the AH-1Z is an A/A49E-7 turret fitted with a 20 mm (0.787 in) M197 three-barreled rotary cannon and also compatible with M50-series air-to-air rounds.