Arms race or just re-equipment - either way, Southeast Asian nations are on a buying spree


DEFENCE EXPENDITURE in Southeast Asia is at an all-time high and is continuing to grow, prompting many ob-servers to suggest that the region is in the throes of a dangerous arms race. Asian governments have been quick to refute this idea, claiming instead a measured modernisation of their military forces. Arms race or not, the fact remains that the area now represents one of the most lucrative weapons markets outside the Middle East.

Southeast Asia is now enjoying one of the longest periods of comparative peace since the end of the Second World War. In spite of this, there are underlying regional tensions between neighboring countries, as well as nervousness in relations with larger powers.

While the countries in the region are bound together economically by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), there is still no unifying multilateral defence mechanism. As a result, each of the seven member states (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) continues to focus one eye on the others and one to the north.

The emergence of China as a world economic power has led to a growing apprehension in many ASEAN capitals that this will manifest itself in the form of military might. Annual double-digit increases in Chinese defence spending since 1989, along with Beijing's growing involvement in Myanmar and legislation laying claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, have done little to allay fears.

ASEAN defence spending, as a result, has continued to climb appreciably. The Philippine Government, spurred on by China's occupation of a Spratly Island reef close to Palawan, recently pushed through a long-awaited 50 billion pesos ($1.9 billion) five-year military-modernisation budget. This is expected to grow to more than 300 billion pesos over 15 years (Flight International, 3-9 May, 1995, P16).

Indonesia, which has been similarly worried by China's claim to its South China Sea Natuna Islands, has drawn up a $2 billion shopping list for new equipment. In 1995, Malaysia spent close to RM$6 billion ($2.36 million) on defence and is now finalising its expenditure plans through to 2000. Singapore's 1995 defence budget, topped $2.8 billion and is expected to grow further in line, with its rapidly growing gross domestic product.


With much of the region's tension centred on the potentially mineral-rich Spratly chain of islands, reefs and shoals, the bulk of new funding is being channeled into re-equipping air and naval forces. Fighter-aircraft manufacturers from Russia, Western Europe and the USA have been engaged in hotly contested dogfights for orders in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Round one in this latest buying spree went to McDonnell Douglas (MDC) in late 1993, with Malaysia's order for eight F-18Ds. The $600 million deal also included MDC AGM-84 Harpoon, Hughes AGM-65 Maverick, Raytheon AIM-9 and AIM-7 missiles. Malaysia followed this up six months later with a $550 million purchase of 18 Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters.

All 16 MiG-29Ns, as well as the two-seat MiG-29NUBs, have now been delivered to the Royal Malaysian Air Force's (RMAF) Kuantan AFB and, once fully operational with No 17 and No 19 Sqns, will replace its Northrop F-5E/Fs in the air-defence role. The eight tandem-seat F-18Ds, are due for delivery in early 1997 and will be employed, as interdiction and maritime-strike aircraft.

Despite Malaysia's earlier interest in a follow-on purchase of between ten and 16 F-18s, it now appears unlikely that the country's next five-year defence plan will contain provision for any more fighter purchases, beyond an additional 12 Hawk British Aerospace 200s. The RMAF is now fully occupied in absorbing 28 Hawk 100/200s, and faces a shortage of trained personnel to operate them.

Malaysia's mixed fighter purchase prompted keen Singapore interest in the F-18D and the MiG-29SE. After evaluating the two fighters, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) opted instead for the Lockheed Martin Block 52 F-16C/D. The $585 million deal calls for the delivery of eight F-16Cs and ten two-seat F-16Ds to begin in 1998. Its seven surviving F-16A/Bs are likely to be retained and upgraded locally, possibly with Israeli assistance.

Despite its Singapore setback, MDC more recently succeeded in convincing another ASEAN F-16A/B operator, Thailand, to switch to its twin-engine fighter. The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF), however, has linked its planned $400 million purchase of four F-18C and four F-18Ds to the supply of the Hughes AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM).

The US State Department is resisting release of the active-guided missile to the region and, instead, has offered to supply the AMRAAM only in the event of Thailand being threatened. Whether the RTAF is willing to accept this is unclear. Waiting in the wings, are Dassault and Sukhoi, offering the Matra Mica-armed Mirage 2000-5 and Vympel AA-12 Adder-equipped Su-35, respectively.

South-East Asia's AMRAAM appetite has been whetted by the sale of the active-guided medium-range AA-12 to Malaysia and Vietnam. The latter is understood already to have received six Sukhoi Su-27s, with a further six in store. The Vietnamese air force is now on a par with the Su-27-equipped Chinese air force.

Fighter manufacturers have now begun to turn their attention to other parts of Southeast Asia. Brunei, after years of delay, has finally begun to proceed with several major military acquisitions. Longstanding plans include the acquisition of an initial ten Hawk 100/200s, once the Royal Brunei Armed Forces' new base at Bandar Seri Begawan Airport is completed. Saab has also targeted Brunei as a potential future operator of its lightweight JAS39 Gripen fighter.

Beyond Brunei, Saab is also hoping to exploit its recently established marketing tie-up with BAe to offer the Gripen to Indonesia. The first of 16 Hawk 100s and 8 Hawk 200s for Indonesia, are due for delivery in May, and there is interest in a follow-on batch of 20 aircraft. It is also seeking additional F-16A/Bs to bolster its existing fleet of 11 aircraft. Talks centre on the acquisition of nine F-16s, delivery of, which to Pakistan has been embargoed by the US Government.

The Philippines is considered a potential buyer of the 17 remaining Pakistani aircraft, provided that agreement can be reached on the $20 million asking price for each. The Philippine air force has stated a requirement for 18 fighters, but has a budget of only $200 million for the next five years. In the longer term, the air force wants a second batch of 18 aircraft.


With the purchase of increasing numbers of modern fighters, several more-affluent ASEAN member states want to acquire an airborne early-warning (AEW) capability. Singapore is the only South East Asian country to date to operate AEW aircraft, in the form of four Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes. Regional air-defence exercises, such as the Five Power Defence Agreement's IDEX series, have clearly demonstrated to other neighboring countries the potential of AEW.

The Malaysian Government has included AEW on its defence wish list, but the requirement appears to be at a formative stage, with no indication about the types and number of aircraft required. Sufficient AEW aircraft would be needed to cover both the Malaysia peninsular and the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo. These would supplement, two long range Martello 743D radar, being supplied by GEC-Marconi.

Thailand has voiced a similar requirement for three to four AEW aircraft, and is known to be interested in the E-2C, but funding remains a perennial problem. Indonesia has a clearly defined need for an AEW platform to enhance the coverage of the 13,000-island archipelago, but also faces a shortage of cash.

One possible low-cost solution being examined for maritime surveillance is fitting the locally produced Industri Pesawat Terbang Nusantara (IPTN) CN-235 with the Ericsson Erieye electronically scanned phased-array radar (Flight International, 13-19 December, 1995, P23). A similar system, fitted to either the Fokker 50 or Saab 340, has been proposed to Singapore to supplement its E-2Cs.

Proposals by regional navies to add submarines to their fleets has had the knock-on effect of prompting greater interest in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and maritime-patrol aircraft (MPA).


Singapore is poised to become the second country in Southeast Asia to acquire a submarine, with the announcement in September of its purchase of a 30-year-old A 12-class boat from Sweden for training. Indonesia already operates two German-built 209-type submarines, and both Malaysia and Thailand are looking to follow.

The RSAF has already acquired, five Fokker Maritime Enforcer Mk2 patrol aircraft, equipped with a Fokker/Dornier TMS-250(V) mission system, Texas Instruments APS-134 radar and GEC-Marconi forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) system. The aircraft are intended primarily for surface strike and over-the horizon targeting for the Singapore navy's Harpoon missiles, but may also be fitted with acoustic processors.

Consideration is also being given to acquiring around 12 naval helicopters in 1998, as part of a wider programme to replace the RSAF's fleet of Bell UH-1s. Singapore has already fitted one of its AS.332 Super Puma, with a dipping sonar for trials.

Further north, the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) has moved to upgrade its ASW capability, with the purchase of five ex-US Navy Lockheed Martin P-3As. The USN modified two of the aircraft to P-3T specification, which includes an AWG-19 HACLCS Harpoon control. The RTN has ordered six Sikorsky S-70 Seahawk helicopters for deployment aboard its new light carrier HTS Chakrinarubet in 1997. It has also purchased three AlliedSignal Bendix/King AQS-13F dipping sonars to equip two of its helicopters for ASW, with a third set kept as spare.

Malaysia recently modernised its MPA fleet with the delivery of four Beechcraft B200Ts each fitted with a Telephonics APS-143 pulse-compression radar and FSI 2000HP FLIR. The navy, in the meantime, hopes to secure funding in the next five-year plan to purchase an initial six naval helicopters to equip two new frigates. Additional helicopters will needed for its planned fleet of up to 27 offshore patrol vessels (Flight International, 13-19 December, 1995, P25).

Elsewhere in the region, Brunei has finally begun to move ahead with a longstanding plan to purchase three IPTN-built CN-235 MPAs, with its recent selection of ARGOSystems as mission integrator. The Indonesian navy, in the meantime, has taken over responsibility for its own CN-235 MPA programme from the air force. It hopes to begin the programme in 1996 with funding for three aircraft.

The Philippines, in response to Chinese moves in the nearby Spratly Islands, is pushing ahead with plans to buy six-to-eight new MPAs. It has stipulated a need for a multi-engine turboprop, equipped with a 360¡ radar, FLIR, electronic-support measures, acoustic processor and magnetic-anomaly detector. As an interim measure, the air force wants to upgrade its two Fokker F27 MPAs.

Air-to-air refueling and transport aircraft have traditionally been a low priority for many of ASEAN's inward-looking air forces. With a growing requirement to project power out over the South China Sea and the region's increasing involvement with overseas peace keeping operations, each mission has taken on much greater importance.

Malaysia, in particular, has taken a lead within ASEAN to contribute troops to United Nations forces deployed in Somalia and, more recently, Bosnia. To relieve the strain on the RMAF's logistical support arm, an additional five Lockheed Martin C-130H-30s have been purchased, while six CN-235s are being obtained from IPTN, in exchange for locally built SME MD3-160 trainers and Proton cars. Two of its C-130Hs are to be converted into tankers to support the RMAF's probe-and-drogue-equipped Hawks.

Thailand has also recently bolstered its military lift with the delivery of six Alenia G.222s. The RTAF, in addition, operates eight C-130Hs and has had a longstanding requirement for a further four. Earlier consideration had been given to converting three surplus Thai Airways International MDC DC-10-30ERs into tankers, but the proposal was subsequently vetoed by the US State Department, and the aircraft returned to commercial service.

The RSAF maintains a relatively modest force of ten C-130s, including four elderly KC-130Bs. Singapore plans to replace the aircraft with two jet-powered tankers, but has delayed final selection of an aircraft until April. Competing for the order are Airbus and Boeing with proposed tanker/ transport versions of the A310 and 767, MDC with converted KDC-10-30s and Israel Aircraft Industries with modified Boeing 707s.


One of the region's most keenly contested competitions is the Malaysian requirement for an initial 12 attack helicopters, between six and ten logistical-support helicopters and between five and nine single-engine scout helicopters.

Denel of South Africa has been pushing its Atlas Aviation CSH-2 Rooivalk attack helicopter, and has signed a memorandum of understanding with Malaysian company Airod to provide in-country manufacturing and support should the Rooivalk win the Royal Malaysian Air Force order. Denel faces strong competition from MDC, offering the AH-64D Longbow Apache, Eurocopter, with its Tiger, and Bell, which having lost out in the UK attack-helicopter competition in 1995, is anxious to land orders for its Super Cobra.

Source: Flight International