Malaysia is looking to speed up the replacement of its air force's Sikorsky S-61 "Nuri" helicopters, following a growing public outcry over the fleet's safety record.

A tender for around 10 helicopters could be floated before year-end, with the AgustaWestland EH101, Eurocopter EC725 and Sikorsky S-92 likely to compete for the contract.

Manufacturers have met defence ministry officials over the last few months for discussions ahead of the competition, which was first mooted in 2004 but has since been postponed several times.

The replacement has taken on added urgency following the crash of an S-61 in mid-July that killed six servicemen, bringing the total number of casualties since the helicopter was introduced to 95.

The latest incident and the search for the servicemen's bodies dominated national headlines for several days, with members of the public and the defence establishment taking the air force to task.

Following the crash, deputy prime minister and defence minister Najib Razak said the cabinet has approved the purchase of new helicopters and that specifications are being fine-tuned.

The Royal Malaysian Air Force bought 40 S-61s in the 1960s and 1970s, which have been used for both utility and combat search-and-rescue missions.

Over 20 S-61s are still in service and last November the ministry signed a RM55.8 million ($16.3 million) contract with local maintenance company Airod to upgrade them.

The service wanted to replace them in 2004, but this was delayed to mid-2006 and then postponed indefinitely. Industry sources, however, say that Malaysia is likely to purchase only two to three aircraft at a time due to budget constraints.

While Malaysia has included S-61 replacements in its 2006-10 financial plan, the purchase of 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKM fighters has taken up much of the air force's budget for the five-year period.

"The service needs at least 10 helicopters to form a proper fleet, but probably has enough money for only up to three aircraft," says a Kuala Lumpur-based observer.

"Unless the prime minister sanctions a special budget and marks this procurement down as an urgent one, they are unlikely to order several at one go. That means the S-61 replacement is likely to proceed at a slower pace than expected."

As a result, the aircraft are likely to remain in service for a few more years despite their age, says Najib. "We do not have many options as the Nuri is the main vehicle used by the air force for transportation," he says. "We cannot just terminate its usage immediately."

Malaysia has several other pending helicopter requirements, including one for an additional six AgustaWestland Super Lynx 300 helicopters and six search and rescue aircraft for its Maritime Enforcement Agency.