Malaysian flip-flops

Eurocopter EC725

Can Malaysia please get on with it?

First, Kuala Lumpur announced that the Eurocopter EC725 Cougar would replace the country’s ageing Sikorsky S-61 “Nuri” fleets. Now, after opposition politicians and Eurocopter’s competitors cried foul, saying that the selection was made without proper trials and checks, Kuala Lumpur has decided to “postpone” the deal.

On the surface, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s reasons seem credible. After all, the country is badly affected by the ongoing global economic crisis and it needs all the money it has in its budget to help its citizens ride out the storm. Saying that the country would defer spending several hundred million to 2011, when Kuala Lumpur plans to revisit the tender, makes good political sense.

Unfortunately, it makes little military sense. The fact remains that the country badly needs to replace the Nuris. Some of these helicopters have been flying for around 40 years and the Royal Malaysian Air Force desperately needs some new equipment. Various fatal accidents involving the type over the last few years attest to this. Malaysia’s various armed services will suffer because of this postponement.

This incident is just symptomatic of the country’s apparently haphazard approach to defence procurements. Its services operate several different makes of aircraft – Sukhoi, MiG and Boeing fighters, BAE and Aermacchi trainers, Eurocopter, Sikorsky, and AgustaWestland helicopters, among other permutations.

Many observers believe that this suggests a lack of proper planning, with the country spending more than necessary to upkeep different makes when it would be cheaper and operationally sounder to have similar aircraft.

An economic crisis is a serious matter, and Kuala Lumpur has to draw up a list of projects that should be given priority in the current climate. Not including the country’s defence needs in that, however, makes little sense. A long-overdue programme to replace 40-year-old military helicopters is just as important for the country, and Malaysia’s armed forces should not have to wait for another three years before a decision is made.

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