Malaysia has delayed a decision on a new fleet of military utility helicopters until later this year, when its domestic political scene is likely to become clearer and the cabinet can approve a special budget for the procurement.
Kuala Lumpur has been assessing the AgustaWestland AW101, Eurocopter EC725, Mil Mi-17 and Sikorsky S-92 for several months to replace more than 20 Sikorsky S-61 Nuri helicopters. An initial order for 12 aircraft is expected, although this could eventually rise to 48, and the winner could be asked to provide helicopters for an army utility requirement as well.
The Malaysian cabinet must approve a special budget for the deal, as the purchase of 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKM fighters has taken up much of the defence budget in its 2006-10 financial plan. Industry sources say that this has been put on the backburner after the general elections in March, when incumbent prime minister Abdullah Badawi's Barisan Nasional coalition narrowly returned to power and lost several key states to the opposition.
Some from Badawi's UMNO party have called for his resignation, with deputy prime minister and defence minister Najib Tun Razak a likely successor. Analysts expect Badawi to hold on until UMNO's general assembly elections later this year, but that also means that the government is unlikely to make any major decisions until then.
Under the original timeframe, Malaysia was due to issue a shortlist in early 2008, choose the winner by mid-year, and take deliveries from 2010. It is now likely to choose the winner in early 2009, which means that the delivery of the first aircraft is likely to take place in 2011 at the earliest.
Replacing the S-61s took on added urgency after several fatal crashes involving the helicopter in the past few years. Almost 90 armed forces personnel and civilians have died in crashes involving the type since it was introduced in 1968, although some in the industry say that many of these were due to pilot error.
According to Royal Malaysian Air Force requirements, the replacements will be used for search and rescue operations, should be able to transport around 20 personnel and perform both day and night operations. The aircraft should also have a glass cockpit, retractable landing gear and folding rotor blades.
Source: Flight International