Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) chief Gen Rodzali Daud is clear about the increasingly complex threat facing Malaysia, and of his service's role in its continued prosperity.
While the air force's key mission is still to safeguard Malaysia's borders and territory against foreign aggression, Daud increasingly sees a role for it in also dealing with the asymmetrical challenges and United Nations-led missions.
"Present and future security issues are no longer tied to Malaysia's traditional boundaries, but have expanded into new areas that are asymmetric in nature," he said. "Terrorism, overlapping territorial claims, intra-state conflicts, drug trafficking, illegal immigrants, sea robbery and piracy are new security challenges in the 21st century."
Daud believes these varied issues could all serve to undermine both global and regional security, presenting a challenge to Malaysia. "The RMAF's role safeguarding Malaysia's territory in the next two decades will be more challenging, and the RMAF must be shaped and modernised to deal with both traditional and non-traditional security concerns."
The highest profile conventional concern facing southeast Asian nations are the "overlapping territorial claims" Daud refers to. Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all have claims in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Of these, China's claim is most vexing, because Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters. Although Chinese leaders seem to realise that their claims earlier this year alarmed neighbours, Kuala Lumpur and others remain wary of Asia's rising superpower - and their defence spending will reflect this.
© Commonwealth of Australia
Malaysia's multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) competition for 18 fighters will provide a significant upgrade for its air force, replacing the RSK MiG-29 (above). Four contenders are in the running: the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; Dassault Rafale; Eurofighter Typhoon; and Saab Gripen.
Daud said a decision will be made before the finalisation of the 11th Malaysia plan, a country-wide economic blueprint that will touch on all aspects of the nation's development. The 11th plan will cover 2015-2020, suggesting an MRCA decision will be announced in 2013 or 2014. As for the 18-aircraft requirement, Daud said "this number will incrementally increase in line with the RMAF's concept of operation".
One criticism of Malaysia's air force has been the mixed nature of its combat fleet despite its small size. The country operates F/A-18Ds, MiG-29s and Sukhoi Su-30s, but despite the issues this has reportedly caused, Daud appears committed to relying on fighters from more than one country.
"The requirement of a mixed fleet of fighters is important to the nation to mitigate international politics that could disrupt the required support in times of hostilities or war," he said. "The key learning experience is to ensure the continued development of a local defence industry and self reliance in the major portion of the maintenance activities."
Kuala Lumpur's other high-profile planned purchase is for four Airbus Military A400M transports. Owing to the aircraft's testing schedule an A400M will not be at the Langkawi International Martime & Aerospace Exhibition, but Malaysia still seems to be committed as the type's first Asian user. Daud noted that the nation's current airlift fleet is not capable of operating in hostile environments.
"Efforts are under way to improve our [airlift fleet's] protection system and capability to participate in United Nations-sponsored activities," he said. "The A400M is a very capable transport with more tactical capabilities. The aircraft will definitely be utilised for peacetime roles."
Daud said Malaysia's first airborne early warning and control system aircraft will be enshrined in the 11th Malaysia plan, making the acquisition unlikely until the second half of the decade. Reflecting this, potential candidates were other notable absentees at the show.
Malaysia also has a requirement for new maritime patrol aircraft. One industry source noted that as the programme falls under the auspices of the air force and not the navy, this purchase is pushed "continuously to the right".
The country is also in the process of retiring its Pilatus PC-7 Mk I trainers, which will be 30 years old in 2013. Daud said the air force is steadily inducting the PC-7 Mk II, and there are no immediate plans for other new turboprop or lead-in fighter trainers.