Malaysia aims to upgrade air force with new fighters, AEW aircraft

Singapore
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Malaysia's air force suffers from too many aircraft types and aircraft that fail to keep up with recent purchases by its neighbours.

But government and air force officials are working to upgrade the air force's capability, despite cuts to this year's defence budget. Requests for information for fighter aircraft and airborne early warning platforms were issued in mid-March, even though Kuala Lumpur cut the 2010 defence budget by 17% to 9.1 billion ringgit ($2.7 billion) to cut its overall deficit.

Before this cut, Malaysia's defence budget had risen in 2007 (8%), 2008 (20%) and 2009 (4%), with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute saying that the country, for 2005-09, had the biggest increase in defence spending of any South-East Asian nation.

The requests for information have been issued now because Malaysia is formulating its 10th five-year national plan that outlines key national projects for 2011-15. There is, however, a strong possibility that Malaysia's larger defence procurements will be made off-budget. Earlier purchases of Airbus Military A400Ms and Sukhoi Su-30s, for example, were never part of the annual defence budgets.

eurocopter ec725, eurocopter
 © Eurocopter

Even though Malaysia has issued a formal RFI, some suppliers are sceptical. This is the third time Malaysia it has done so for fighters and AEW aircraft. But this time, the Malaysians seem to be a bit more serious, says one industry source. "This is the third time they are asking for information. If they don't go through with it this time, we are not likely to entertain them in the future," adds the source.

Malaysia has tended to buy military equipment from Russia and Europe. This is partly because the country's prime minister for nearly 23 years was Mahathir Mohamad, a staunch critic of US foreign policy.

But Mahathir left politics in 2003, and the current prime minister, Najib Razak, is seen to be much more open to the USA. His government, for example, has been trying to reach a free trade agreement with the Americans.

President Barack Obama has also been making a concerted effort to engage Malaysia and other Muslim nations. But despite the USA's overtures, the Europeans and Russians may continue their strong track record. Russia in particular has close political ties. Najib's father Abdul Razak was Malaysia's prime minister in the 1970s, and during his time in office, Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2003 visited Malaysia and that year signed a deal to sell 18 Su-30MKM fighters. All of these have since been delivered.

Najib was Malaysia's defence minister at the time and helped negotiate the Sukhoi deal. As for the current competition, Russia's defence export agency Rosoboronexport has always said publicly it will offer the Su-30.

Malaysia is seeking enough fighters for one to two squadrons. If it is two squadrons, this would bring the total to 36-40 fighter aircraft. As well as the Su-30, other fighters Malaysia is considering include the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-16 and Saab Gripen.

Malaysia already has eight F/A-18Ds, which puts Boeing in a strong position. It could be argued that Malaysia needs to phase out its older fighters, such as its Northrop F-5s, and simplify its fleet, with the costs involved in maintaining the aircraft also a major consideration.

cn-235, indonsesian aerospace
 © Indonsesian Aerospace

Malaysia's defence minister Ahmad Zahid publicly criticised the air force's RSK MiG-29s last year for being too expensive to maintain and vowed to retire them by the end of 2010. But following some political lobbying, the minister decided to delay phasing them out.

Six MiG-29s have already been retired but Ahmad's decision means the other 10 aircraft will continue to be maintained, by Aerospace Technology System in Malaysia for several years. "The decision [to retain the MiG-29s] was based on the capability of the aircraft in executing the tasks given," says Ahmad.

"We are aware that some of our equipment has dropped in value," he says, referring to the fact that if Malaysia tried to sell the aircraft, it would have to be at a deep discount.

Malaysia has also issued an RFI for two AEW aircraft. An aircraft equipped with Saab Microwave Systems' Erieye radar and the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye are likely to be the main contenders, with other possibilities including the Embraer ERJ-145 AEW aircraft. There is also the E-2D, but Northrop is unlikely to offer this as it is still in development and, when it enters service, it will be with the US Navy.

Malaysia has been relying on Beechcraft King Air aircraft, one of which has been upgraded with Thales radar, with a second to be updated soon. But the King Air's capability pales in comparison to neighbouring Singapore's Israeli-modified Gulfstream G550s installed with airborne early warning and control systems from Elta Systems.

Even though Malaysia has had several procurement false starts, it has concluded some major purchases in recent years. In 2006 it ordered eight Alenia Aermacchi MB-339CMs, the last of which was delivered in December 2009. These aircraft are used to train pilots destined for Malaysia's Sukhoi fleet. The MB-339CMs replaced 13 MB-339AMs, the last of which was retired in October 2009.

Malaysia also ordered four A400Ms in 2005 and is now the only country outside Europe to order the military transport.

The next acquisition likely this year is for military utility helicopters. Malaysia wants to replace its 20 Sikorsky S-61 Nuri helicopters, the first of which it received in 1968. Kuala Lumpur chose the Eurocopter EC725 in 2007 after also evaluating the AgustaWestland AW101, Mil Mi-17 and Sikorsky S-92. However, the deal was called off after criticism from opposition political parties.

malaysian air force mb-339cms, alenia aermacchi
 © Alenia Aermacchi

The opposition argued in parliament that Malaysia had overpaid for the helicopters and questioned the process by which the EC725 was selected, but Eurocopter remains the frontrunner for this procurement. The initial order is likely to be for 12 aircraft and follow-on purchases could increase this to 48.

Maritime patrol aircraft are another possible procurement this year to replace the four Super King Airs the air force received in 1994. Malaysian air force officials have been negotiating with Indonesia's state-owned aircraft-maker Dirgantara Indonesia for the purchase of four Indonesian Aerospace CN-235s. Industry sources say the two sides hope to sign a letter of intent at Defence Services Asia in Kuala Lumpur on 19-22 April.

The service has been considering other aircraft types for maritime patrol, such as Fokker 50s and the Alenia Aeronautica ATR 42MP. But the air force already operates CN-235 transports, so Indonesia's offering would provide commonality.

Defence suppliers have good reason to be sceptical, especially given ongoing concerns about the availability of funds. The time, effort and money involved in pitching for such contracts can be considerable, says one defence supplier. "That money has to come from somewhere," he says.