Government reverses previous decision on Boeing fighters

Malaysia is closing in on its long-awaited purchase of 12 to 18 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets after a year of delays.

Mahathir Mohamad, the outgoing prime minister, is understood to have recently endorsed the acquisition, marking a sudden reversal in his administration's decision to stall the purchase over the last year for political reasons.

Mahathir openly criticised the USA's involvement in the Iraq war, and the consequent souring of USA-Malaysia relations has since made it difficult for any purchase of US military aircraft.

Last year, Malaysia earmarked the Super Hornet and Sukhoi Su-30 as its two future fighters, but the acquisition of the Su-30 leapfrogged over the Super Hornet earlier this year. Offers for 12 or 18 Super Hornets remained on the table, industry sources say.

Mahathir is now prepared to give approval to the procurement before he leaves office at the end of this month.

Boeing F/A-18 programme president Tony Parasida acknowledged during the LIMA 2003 air show last week that in late September there were more discussions with Malaysia than there had been for several months.

But he says Mahathir and defence minister Najib Tun Razak have not yet accepted either of Boeing's offers. Najib said at the beginning of the LIMA show that "we're still looking into" the Super Hornet.

Boeing is also offering to take back Malaysia's eight existing F/A-18Ds. Seven are serviceable, and Parasida says that the air force is working on repairing the eighth, which was damaged during a runway overrun earlier this year.

Industry sources say the new Super Hornets will not be acquired until Malaysia's next defence plan, which begins in 2006, with deliveries spread out across the second half of this decade.

Given this schedule, the purchase decision could be made next year by Mahathir's successor. But waiting for that change could jeopardise the purchase altogether, and Boeing has been lobbying hard over the last couple of months to get initial approval before the end of the year.

Source: Flight International