Italian aircraft firm Leonardo has developed the AW249 as a replacement for the earlier Italian A129 helicopter gunship. While the A129 was similar to the first helicopter gunship, the American AH-1, the AW249 is more similar to the American AH-64, the successor to the AH-1. The AW249 took its first flight in August and is expected to enter service in 2025 and begin replacing the remaining A129s, which entered service in 1990.
In late-2014 Italy sent one of the new models (A129D) of their A129 helicopter gunship to Afghanistan for testing and, since that was successful, the A129Ds replaced the three older A129s that were already there to support a bomb removal team and some special operations troops still operating in the north throughout 2014. All A129s were upgraded to the A129D standard,
The A129D is roughly comparable to the upgraded versions of the U.S. AH-1 (especially the AH-1W SuperCobra). The 4.6-ton A-129 was the first helicopter gunship designed and built in Western Europe and was developed in the 1980s and entered service in 1990. While it has been upgraded frequently since then, the only customer was Italy which bought all 60 of the production models. Turkey obtained a production license for T129, an A129 variant largely built in Turkey using Italian and Turkish components. In this case the A129 manufacturer is exporting more technology than manufactured items. The Turkish 129 weighs five tons and entered service in 2014. So far 76 have been built with more on order. Turkey has exported six to the Philippines.
The A129D has advanced features first found on the AH-64. These include (Toplite); a longer (by about 50 percent) range targeting radar and optical system with zoom that allows the A129D weapons operator to spot targets for the A129Ds new Spike ER (range 8 kilometers) missiles or laser guided missiles or bombs from aircraft above (via the laser designator on the A129D). Toplite also enabled the A129D to fly in any weather, day or night.
The 8-ton AW249 is a substantial improvement over the A129, with three hours endurance, 20 percent longer than the A129. The AW264 can fly higher and faster than the A129 and is more robust, especially when it comes to dealing with combat damage or emergency (”hard”) landings. The AW249 has better electronics, including electronic countermeasures. The AW249 carries more than twice the weight of weapons than the A129 (which carried 800 kg). Leonardo is seeking export customers but is running into formidable competition from the American AH-64, which entered service in 1986 and had been regularly updated. Over 2,400 have been built or are on order, most of them for sixteen (so far) export customers. The most recent export customer is Poland, which ordered 96 AH-64s.
The only other competition is the Eurocopter (AirBus) Tiger. This is a six-ton gunship that entered service in 2006. So far 180 have been built. Tiger is used by France, Germany and Spain as well as Australia, which is replacing its 22 Tigers with AH-64s.