Malaysia has announced plans to phase out its RSK MiG-29N fighters over the next few years, with the fleet having been plagued by problems since it bought the type in the early 1990s.

"I have decided that from next month, the aircraft will be phased out and we should find a way to sell them to certain companies or countries approved by the United Nations," Malaysia's new defence minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told the official Bernama news agency.

The minister did not say what would replace the MiG-29s, which are operated in an interceptor role. The Royal Malaysian Air Force is scheduled to receive its last six of 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKMs by year-end, and already operates eight Boeing F/A-18Ds and 13 BAE Systems Hawk 208s that are used in a light attack role.

Industry sources say Malaysia has encountered problems in obtaining spares for its 14 MiG-29s, and that maintenance has been an issue for a long while. A mid-life upgrade had been mooted as a possible solution to the problems, but sources say it would be cheaper over the long run to buy new fighters instead.

Kuala Lumpur already has a pending requirement for another 18 fighters. Observers believe that it could begin a competition in a few years and assess the Su-30, Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet and potentially Saab's Gripen. The air force could now ask the defence ministry to increase the number of fighters it buys through this tender to replace the MiG-29s.

One problem, however, is Malaysia's tight defence budget. Last October, the global economic crisis forced it to delay a plan to buy Eurocopter EC725s to replace its army's Sikorsky S-61 "Nuri" utility helicopters.

It has also postponed a plan to buy eight airborne early warning and control system aircraft until the 10th Malaysia Plan, covering 2011-15, or even the subsequent plan, spanning 2016-20. The country also has requirements for maritime patrol aircraft and anti-submarine warfare helicopters.

Source: Flight International