In the Harry Potter fantasy series characters are reluctant to name the chief villain. When they refer to him it is often as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” or “You-Know-Who”.

Similarly, Southeast Asian governments are reluctant to name – or even allude to – the regional Voldemort that is pushing them to take airpower more seriously.


Source: Republic of Singapore Air Force

A Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16 in December 2022. Singapore is upgrading about 60 examples to the advanced F-16V standard

But although the name ‘China’ is unlikely to pass the lips of regional air chiefs and defence ministers in public, Beijing’s massive defence build-up is contributing to a sense of urgency with combat aircraft procurement in the region. Air forces are ordering new equipment and eyeing more potent capabilities.

Another spur is Russia’s war against Ukraine. Southeast Asian governments, having enjoyed decades of peaceful economic growth, have received a stark reminder that major conventional wars can and do still happen.

Although the Chinese mainland lies well to the north of Southeast Asia, Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea – in contravention of international law. Despite assurances that it would not militarise the strategic body of water, Beijing has built air bases on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, as well as two in the Paracel Islands, which are contested with Vietnam.

These strategic islands, as well as Beijing’s ambitions to build a fleet of aircraft carriers, put Southeast Asia within easy range of China’s vast aerial armada. 

“The PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] outposts on the Spratly Islands are capable of supporting military operations, including advanced weapon systems, and have supported non-combat aircraft,” reported the US Department of Defense in a recent report to the US Congress.


While Beijing has yet to make a full-scale deployment of combat aircraft to its South China Sea air bases, its assets regularly harass foreign aircraft operating in international airspace over the contested waterway.

As the main victim of China’s expansion, the Philippines has been the most vocal about its concerns. Other countries are more wary of Beijing’s ire. China is, by a considerable margin, the region’s biggest trading partner, giving it profound economic leverage. Southeast Asian governments take considerable pains not to offend Beijing.

Still, a greater emphasis on fighter procurement shows that governments are worried.

Malcolm Davis, senior analyst, defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has been vocal about the security challenge that Beijing represents.

“In terms of accelerating the growth of fighter capability acquisition, I’d argue it would have to be the rapid growth and expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force [PLAAF] and People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force [PLANAF] and China’s more assertive posture and actions in the South China Sea,” says Davis.

“There are no other security challenges in the region or facing Southeast Asia that would warrant a more ambitious growth of national air forces. Another contributing factor could be the need to replace older generation combat aircraft, and a degree of national prestige would factor into that policy choice as well.”

RSAF F-15SG Boeing

Source: FlightGlobal/Greg Waldron

An RSAF F-15SG at the Singapore Airshow in February 2018. Officially Singapore has 24 F-15SGs, but it is understood that 40 are actually in service

The Southeast Asian nation most serious about defence is the region’s business and financial hub, Singapore. While the city-state has good relations with neighbours and with Beijing, it also has close defence ties with the USA and the broader Western world. By a considerable margin Singapore possesses Southeast Asia’s most advanced air force.

The mainstay of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) fleet is the Boeing F-15SG. Officially the country admits to operating 24 examples, but it is understood that 40 are in service.

Cirium fleets data suggests that the average age of Singapore’s F-15SGs is 11.8 years. While Singapore has not announced any plans for upgrades, it is probably observing advances with the F-15EX, the much-upgraded version of the F-15 that is poised to enter service with the US Air Force.


Singapore is also in the process of upgrading about 60 Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds to the F-16V standard, with the first upgraded example delivered in 2021.

The upgraded F-16 feature a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar in the form of the Northrop Grumman APG-83. It also has new mission computers, updated avionics, and the Link 16 datalink.

The upgraded type made its debut at the Forging Sabre Exercise in the USA in September 2023. Pilots interviewed by the Ministry of Defence’s in-house publication, Pioneer, said that the improvements make the aircraft far more lethal.

Singapore is also set to become the first Southeast Asian nation to operate a stealth aircraft through its planned acquisition of 12 Lockheed F-35Bs. Singapore likely opted for the short-take off and vertical landing version of the F-35 owing to the country’s small geographic size and lack of large air bases. The first four examples will be delivered in 2026 and be based in the USA for training.

The aircraft will be co-located with upgraded F-16Vs at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Arkansas, allowing the RSAF to experiment with operating the two types together.

Finally, Singapore’s fighter fleet has invaluable back-up in the form of key support types, specifically six Airbus Defence & Space A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transports (MRTTs) and four Gulfstream G550 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. According to the defence ministry, the G550-AEW’s AESA radar – the Israel Aerospace Industries EL/W-2085 – has a detection range in excess of 174nm (322km).

While Singapore has been assiduous about maintaining and advancing air combat capabilities, the same cannot be said of its northern neighbour, Malaysia.

Malaysia Hawk 208

Source: Greg Waldron/FlightGlobal

A Hawk 208 of the Royal Malaysian Air Force. The type was involved in the interception of Chinese transport aircraft over the South China Sea in 2021

While Kuala Lumpur has tended to dither about defence procurements, it received a rude jolt in June 2021, when 16 PLAAF Xian Y-20 and Ilyushin Il-76 strategic transports flew an unprecedented sortie deep into the South China Sea region. The large formation flew southwards toward the coast of Borneo, approaching to within 60nm of Malaysian territory. Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) BAE Systems Hawk 208s intercepted the intruders.

In an analysis of the event, analyst Euan Graham offered a few possibilities. Beijing may have wanted to give Malaysia pause about exploiting new offshore oil resources in Kuala Lumpur’s exclusive economic zone. He also speculated that Beijing may have been conducting airlift training, and possibly probing Malaysia’s air defence capabilities.


On paper the RMAF is impressive, with a fleet of 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKMs. Although the type has suffered sustainment issues over the years, air force officials and local industry have said that the type can be kept airworthy.

Aerospace Technology Systems – a locally controlled joint venture between National Aerospace & Defence Industry and two Russian partners, RAC MiG and Rosoboronexport – has conducted service life extension work for the fleet.

Kuala Lumpur also operates eight Boeing F/A-18D Hornets. It acquired a number of spares and other equipment from the Royal Australian Air Force when the latter retired its fleet of F/A-18A/Bs in favour of the F-35A. In 2022, Malaysian defence minister Hishamuddin Hussein said that MYR2.4 billion ($687 million) would be invested on Hornet sustainment in 2023 in cooperation with the USA.

Rounding out its combat fleet are single-seat Hawk 208s tasked with ground attack.

In the late 2000s and early 2010s Malaysia had a long-running ambition to replace its now retired MiG-29s. It looked at a number of advanced fighters under its Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) requirement. After years of delay, MRCA was eventually dropped and replaced with a watered-down requirement for a Trainer-Light Combat Aircraft, or FLIR-LCA.

Having observed the glacial pace of Malaysian defence procurement, sceptics were surprised in February 2023 when the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50 was selected for FLIR-LCA. A contract was duly signed at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition in May covering 18 aircraft, with deliveries starting in 2026. Long-term plans call for an additional 18 examples to be obtained.

While FLIR-LCA is a step in the right direction, Malaysia lacks vital support assets, such as an AEW&C aircraft or dedicated tankers. This limits the capability afforded by its fighters.

IndonesiaRafale-c-Dasault Aviation

Source: Dassault Aviation

Artist’s Impression of a Rafale in Indonesian livery. Jakarta aims to order a total of 42 examples

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country by population, is also nervous about China – and is investing in its air combat capabilities.

In February 2022, shortly before the last iteration of the Singapore air show, Jakarta committed to 42 Dassault Aviation Rafales. The €8.1 billion ($8.7 billion) package also includes crew training, logistical support for Indonesian air bases, and a training centre with two full-mission simulators.

On 8 January, Jakarta activated an order for its third and final tranche under the deal, totalling 18 of the multi-role aircraft.

The Rafales will offer a significant capability upgrade to Indonesia’s current combat fleet, the mainstay of which are 11 Su-30MK2s and five Su-27SK/SKMs with an average age of 14.2 years. Jakarta also operates 32 F-16s with an average age of 36.6 years. This fleet comprises nine F-16A/Bs, which are subject to a mid-life upgrade programme, and 23 F-16C/Ds.

In addition, Jakarta has 22 Hawk 209s and 13 Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucanos earmarked for the ground-attack mission.

Prior to the Rafale buy, Indonesian officials had suggested that the choice was between the F-15EX and Rafale. Simultaneously with the Rafale order, the US government cleared Indonesia for the possible acquisition of 36 F-15EXs for up to $13.9 billion.

An Indonesian F-15EX buy appears to have traction. In August 2023, Jakarta entered a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Boeing about the acquisition of up to 24 of the type during a visit by defence minister Prabowo Subianto to the USA. The pact was signed at Boeing’s factory in St. Louis, Missouri, where it produces the F-15 and other combat aircraft.

“We are pleased to announce our commitment to procure the critical F-15EX fighter capability for Indonesia,” said Subianto. “This state-of-the-art fighter will protect and secure our nation with its advanced capabilities.”

Finalising the deal is contingent on the blessings of the US government.

Jakarta has also flirted with the acquisition of 12 surplus Dassault Mirage 2000-5s, via a proposed $735 million arrangement with Qatar. The fighters had been set to arrive in 2025 to fill a capability gap opened by the retirement of Northrop F-5s and the end of service life for Hawk 100/200s. In February, however, Indonesia’s defence ministry said the deal had been cancelled.


Jakarta formerly had plans to replace the F-5s with Su-35s, but the threat of US sanctions under Washington DC’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act legislation killed this potential acquisition.

As with Malaysia, Indonesia is light on support assets for its fighter fleet. It lacks a dedicated AEW&C capability, but it could be close to ordering the A330 MRTT. In September 2023, the defence ministry indicated that four Airbus types are in “effective contract”: the A330 MRTT and A400M tactical transport, plus the Airbus Helicopters H225M transport and AS565 Panther naval helicopter.

While the AS565 and H225M are already in service with Indonesia, and Jakarta has a firm order for a pair of A400Ms, no formal commitment for the A330 tanker/transport has been announced. Airbus, for its part, indicated that Indonesia has selected the MRTT, but suggested that details still need to be finalised.

The Rafale order and F-15EX MoU raised eyebrows in South Korea, where Jakarta is a 20% partner in KAI’s developmental KF-21 programme. Although Indonesian officials periodically state their commitment to the twin-engined fighter, persistent media reports suggest that Jakarta is chronically behind on payments. Jakarta’s clear interest in expensive, high-end western fighters is a cause for doubt about its commitment to the KF-21.

In addition, two Indonesians working on the programme in South Korea are being investigating amid allegations that they used a USB drive to steal technology related to the KF-21. FlightGlobal also understands that there is dissatisfaction in Indonesia with the level of technology transfer that South Korea is willing to provide. 

Davis feels that old patterns of rather ad hoc procurements are still a challenge in the region.

“As is usual with Southeast Asian approaches to capability development, it is likely to be lacking in coherency in terms of how Southeast Asian air forces can maintain multiple types of different aircraft – usually bought in small numbers of each type – and ensure they are an effective capability,” he says.

“This is particularly the case with states such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Clearly Singapore gets things right, and I think the Philippines is taking defence much more seriously in the face of challenges from China.”

Philippines air force KAI FA-50

Source: US Air Force

Twelve FA-50 light-attack jets comprise Manila’s entire fast jet capability. The Phillippines is in discussions with the USA about a new multi-role fighter 

Despite facing a daunting security challenge from Beijing, the Philippines has been slow to reconstitute its fast jet capability, operating just 12 FA-50s. Still, this is a big improvement: after retiring its F-5s in 2004, the Philippines utterly lacked fast jets until the FA-50s started arriving in 2015. Manila also operates six Super Tucanos.

For years Manila has been considering a fighter buy, with the Saab Gripen and F-16 mooted as potential candidates. An F-16 buy appears more likely: in April, the USA said that discussions were underway for “a fleet of multi-role fighter aircraft for the Philippine air force” – reportedly for a dozen aircraft.

Other Southeast Asian states, namely Thailand and Vietnam, are also assessing their airpower needs.

Bangkok was interested in the F-35, but the US government reportedly denied this request and the government has other funding priorities. Bangkok operates 112 fixed-wing combat aircraft, the majority of which are aging F-16A/Bs and F-5E/Fs, although both types have been subject to modernisation work. In addition, Thailand operates 11 Gripen C/Ds, and 18 Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jets in the ground-attack role.

Thailand is also the only Southeast Asian nation apart from Singapore to support its fighter fleet with an AEW&C capability, in the form of two Erieye radar-equipped Saab 340Bs.

Vietnam, also under pressure from China, faces the challenge of relying on a distracted Russia for its combat aircraft fleet, which comprises 79 aircraft, all from Sukhoi. The Vietnam People’s Air Force operates 35 Su-30MK2Vs, six Su-27SKs and five Su-27UBK trainers. Its surface attack capability resides in 33 Su-22s.

Hanoi could, however, look to the west for its next fighter investment. In September, Reuters reported that US President Joe Biden had raised the possibility of selling F-16s to Vietnam following a summit in Hanoi. Still, it could be some years before such a deal comes to fruition.


While the activity around regional fighter fleets is definitely a step change from the 2000s and 2010s, it is debatable whether China can truly be deterred.

“In terms of missions, clearly the Southeast Asian states want a minimal air defence capability to deter lower-level threats by China, and to protect their airspace and offshore territories,” says Davis.

“Whether their planned acquisitions will actually deliver such a deterrent capability is quite another thing, and once again, goes back to the individual state’s ability to sustain and operate the types of aircraft they are buying. But all of these acquisitions are likely to be piecemeal capability – and certainly won’t be a huge challenge to a large PLAAF/PLANAF capability.”