Fourth-generation multirole combat aircraft, rather than fifth-generation fighters remain the Royal Malaysian Air Force's near-term priority, with the service hoping to gradually build up its purchases to form six squadrons by 2025.

"To achieve this will require a big budget allocation," says RMAF chief Gen Azizan Ariffin. "Therefore we will be going by phases, and hopefully by 2025 we will have the total required platforms."

While types including the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-16 could be offered to Malaysia, analysts believe that Kuala Lumpur wants to move to an all-Russian fleet of strike aircraft. The South-East Asian country ordered 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKMs in 2002, with deliveries scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, and although the air force also operates eight F/A-18Ds and 16 RSK MiG-29Ns, the Su-30MKM is the favourite for a new fighter deal. The service could seek funding for a follow-on buy in time for Malaysia's 2011-15 spending plan.

Neighbouring Singapore, which has ordered 24 Boeing F-15SGs and now operates South-East Asia's largest fleet of F-16s, could order the Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter early next decade, but Malaysia is not about to rush into a decision. "The RMAF will keep abreast with the latest technology and strategic environment in procuring future fighters. If there is requirement to go for a specific role platform, I am sure the RMAF will make a thorough study on those requirements," Azizan told Flight International during the Defence Services Asia exhibition in Kuala Lumpur late last month.

 Azizan Ariffin
© Rolls-Royce

A more immediate priority is the acquisition of airborne early warning and control aircraft, with funding again likely to be sought under the 2011-15 ninth Malaysia plan. "The requirement has been discussed earlier and officially registered during the eighth Malaysia plan, but due to budget constraints, we were not able to launch it," says Azizan. The contenders are likely to be the Embraer EMB-145 and Saab 2000 equipped with Saab Microwave Systems' Erieye radar, and Northrop Grumman's E-2C Hawkeye 2000.

Maritime patrol aircraft are also needed as part of Malaysia's commitment to joint surveillance of the Malacca Straits with Indonesia and Singapore. The budget, however, may not stretch to that in the near term. "As a maritime nation, MPA is an imminent requirement," says Azizan. "The budget allocation may not allow for a complete inventory, but we may go by phases, just like the MRCA [fighter] programme."

The MPA project will go hand in hand with a navy requirement for anti-submarine warfare helicopters, also likely to be included in the ninth Malaysia plan. The contenders could include the AgustaWestland Super Lynx, Kaman SH-2 Seasprite, Kamov Ka-28, NH Industries NH90 and Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk. "The total platform required is to cater for 24/7 operations between the two theatres of Malaysia," says Azizan.

Additional rotorcraft are high on the list of priorities for Malaysia. A competition to replace the Sikorsky S-61 Nuri transport and utility helicopter, which Azizan says has served the armed forces "gallantly for more than 40 years", is imminent. Over 90 armed forces personnel and civilians have died in crashes involving the type since 1968, and calls for their replacement increased after the last incident in 2007.

Azizan acknowledges that accidents and the lower number of S-61s in service have increased the maintenance and operating costs of the fleet, and that "the low availability of the Nuri has lowered the RMAF's heliborne readiness". Kuala Lumpur has assessed the AgustaWestland AW101, Eurocopter EC725, Mil Mi-17 and Sikorsky S-92, and a shortlist had been expected early this year. An initial order for 12 aircraft is anticipated, but this could eventually rise to 48.

However, a decision has been delayed until late 2008, as the Malaysian cabinet must approve a special budget for the purchase. This is unlikely to happen until the future of prime minister Abdullah Badawi, whose ruling coalition returned to power with a much lower majority and lost several key states to the opposition, has been resolved.

While Malaysia has been inducting unmanned air vehicles, it could also begin a study into unmanned combat air vehicles in the future. "This will require further study on its concept and implementation, due to the laws governing the conduct of participants in war," says Azizan.

From a broader perspective, the RMAF's modernisation effort will seek to balance "factors including budget constraints, relative comparison, how much is enough [and] those areas in which we are lacking," Azizan says. "Our main areas of focus are towards refining our operational strategies and concepts, equipping the RMAF with high-tech weapons and weapon systems, and of course ensuring the competency and professionalism of our personnel."


Source: Flight International