SINGAPORE: Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad caused something of a stir among defence observers last week when he suggested the country could purchase its next fighter jet from China instead of Europe in retaliation against a European Union plan to curb palm oil use in biofuels.
“We will think of buying airplanes from China or any other country," Dr Mahathir was quoted as saying, regarding the EU’s proposed plan to end the use of palm oil in biofuels on Sunday (Mar 24).
He then appeared to backtrack on those remarks, first by clarifying the next day that it was “only a suggestion” and more interestingly, adding that “we may not buy any jets at all”.
He reinforced this point during his visit to the opening of the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) exhibition on Tuesday, saying that while Malaysia was interested in buying new aircraft, it was not time to do so yet.
He further added that “the aircraft we bought some time back still can perform well" with proper maintenance.
Indeed, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) had up to ten of its Su-30MKMs flying in the days leading up to LIMA, a far cry from the situation described by Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu when he told Parliament in August last year that only four of the RMAF’s 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKM multi-role fighters were flyable.
Those low serviceability rates were attributed to the lack of funding to carry out required deep maintenance activity as 14 of the RMAF’s fleet of 18 Sukhois approach their tenth year of operations.
Since that time, Malaysia has issued a contract to local vendors to carry out the maintenance programme in conjunction with the Russian manufacturer, which has enabled the work to be done locally and at a lower cost compared to sending the jets back to Russia to be repaired.
NOT ENOUGH NUMBERS
Despite this, the most pressing issue facing the RMAF’s fighter force is less about serviceability and more about having sufficient numbers to provide adequate air defence coverage for Malaysia.
The RMAF has 26 front line fighters (18 Su-30s, 8 Boeing F/A-18D Hornets) and fewer than 20 BAE Hawk 108/208s that possess a limited combat capability, to cover all of Peninsula and East Malaysia.
The geographic challenge of having two separate landmasses separated by a large body of water has taken on an increased importance in recent years, with instability in the southern Philippines regularly spilling into the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah and nearby waters.
This has seen the RMAF step up its presence in East Malaysia since the 2013 Lahad Datu clashes with Sulu militants to support the Malaysian Armed Forces’ Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), which includes increased combat aircraft deployments to its base in Labuan.
PROGRAMMES ON ICE
Even with these factors in mind, Dr Mahathir’s remarks has cast more doubt on Malaysia’s ailing Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) acquisition programme.
There was already a growing concern within the regional defence community that the MRCA programme had stalled before these latest developments, with Malaysia’s budget problems curtailing defence spending even before the change in government following the May 2018 general elections that swept the Pakatan Harapan to power.
The programme is seeking an additional 18 fighter jets following the delivery of 18 Su-30MKM fighters from Russia beginning in 2007, and was supposed to have replaced the RMAF’s Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29s, which are no longer flying and whose personnel have mostly been transferred elsewhere within the armed forces.
The competition initially saw four primary contenders squaring off against each other; these being the French Dassault Rafale, multinational Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet from the United States and Sweden’s Saab JAS-39 Gripen although the first two types had been widely rumoured to be the favourites before the full extent of Malaysia’s budget woes became apparent.
Worse, the country’s latest defence budget announced in November last year saw a slight year-on-year decline with RM13.91 billion (US$3.41 billion) budgeted, of which RM5.11 billion (USS$1.25 billion) was set aside as development expenditure over the 2019 fiscal year that also covers procurement.
This painful stagnation in the defence budget was already apparent even before the change in government, with figures published by the US government’s International Trade Administration showing that defence spending registered a Compound Annual Growth Rate declining by 8.58 per cent between 2013 and 2017.
PESSIMISM AND SUBDUED SHOWING AT LIMA
This pessimism about the MRCA programme was reflected in the latest iteration of LIMA, with the contenders significantly cutting back marketing efforts for the programme and none bringing aircraft to the show with the exception of Saab’s Gripen, with a Royal Thai Air Force example making the short flight from its base in southern Thailand.
A pair of EA-18G Growlers from the US Navy, which are a specialised electronic attack variant of the Super Hornet although not one that Malaysia is keen on buying, were also in attendance at LIMA but the effort was more of a “showing the flag” exercise by the US government rather than a commercial effort from manufacturer Boeing to market their fighters.
This relatively subdued showing stands in sharp contrast to previous LIMAs, which saw manufacturers bringing their aircraft to the show and pulling out all the stops to hawk their respective products with aggressive marketing efforts, aerial displays as well as demonstration flight tours for Malaysian defence officials and the media on board.
Past editions of LIMA also saw the four primary contenders contributing fighter aircraft displays to wow crowds and demonstrate their aircraft’s winning capabilities, in the hopes of currying favour with the Malaysian defence establishment
STALLING THE RMAF’S MODERNISATION
Malaysia’s budget uncertainty has stalled the overall RMAF modernisation effort.
Where the sharp edge of the fighting force’s strike capability has been allowed to languish for so many years, it’s unclear if other aspects of the air force’s force structure that includes air lift, air support and air defence capabilities will find fiscal support when the time comes for their replacement.
Before the change in government, former Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had made half-hearted efforts to restart other stalled programmes which have been put on hold for many years, including the acquisition of a new maritime patrol aircraft and upgrades to the ageing Nuri helicopter and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft fleets.
However, the current government has not committed to continuing these projects, which leaves these programmes in limbo once again.
Malaysia’s defence budget crunch is perhaps a reflection on how defence is commonly seen as an easy and politically cost-free way to rein in government spending, and a chip that can be traded away when cost of living and other more front-facing economic challenges plague a country.
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To be fair, Malaysia is hardly the only country guilty of such a mindset. No doubt, the first priority for the Pakatan Harapan government should be to repair Malaysia’s fiscal position.
It must be remembered, however, that while the regional security environment remains relatively benign, there are no shortages of potential flashpoints that have the potential to escalate, with adverse consequences for Malaysia, if the country does not have the benefit of a decisive and capable defence force.
As it is, the pain for the RMAF is likely to be felt most acutely in the maritime sphere, with Malaysia having to make do with a modest fleet of maritime patrol aircraft to try and cope with myriad maritime security challenges ranging from transnational crime in the Sulu Sea, to piracy in the coastal waters around Malaysia, and uncertainty arising from the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Noteworthy efforts to rectify the stasis the RMAF has found itself in for close to a decade have been recently underway.
With the MRCA programme in deep freeze, the RMAF has turned its attention to a more affordable Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), and has issued a Request for Information (RFI) from several companies in January about their respective offerings.
These include the Korea Aerospace Industries FA-50 Golden Eagle, Italy’s Leonardo with its M-346FA Master, the Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder, and India’s HAL Tejas.
The new LCA will replace the RMAF’s Hawks, which are made up of a mixture of light combat aircraft and trainers that have a secondary combat capability.
Although BAE’s Malaysia office says that it “remains the most reliable, available aircraft” in the RMAF’s inventory, the Hawks can do little more than provide an air policing capability in peacetime and combat in low-intensity conflicts such as that seen in Lahad Datu.
Most of the defence companies who have responded to the RFI have already positioned themselves for the programme at this year’s LIMA exhibition.
Perhaps with an eye on Malaysia’s budget problems and the EU palm oil dispute in mind, Russia’s state-owned conglomerate Rostec, which brings together several companies involved in strategic industries such as defence, said at LIMA that it was happy to accept palm oil payments for defence equipment, while several of the contenders were present at the static and flying display.
This new lightweight fighter acquisition will be part of the RMAF’s CAP 55 long-term transformation plan, which envisages a force structure of two MRCA squadrons, three squadrons of LCA, and one each of maritime patrol, airborne early warning and control, and unmanned aircraft in 2055.
While by no means a silver bullet - given that these are for the most part, not as capable as the MRCA contenders - such a force structure will give the RMAF a more balanced mix of combat aircraft and with theoretically sufficient numbers to meet its needs, and have a better shot at passing shrewd bureaucrats in the defence establishment, who are mindful of the country’s financial constraints.
A lot will still depend on Malaysia’s fiscal position as well as whether the government of the day has the political will to commit funds to defence spending that can meet the RMAF’s requirements to provide the country with a credible deterrence force.
While the RMAF’s current frontline fighters are still reasonably modern and capable, the same cannot be said in another decade or so, and the absence of concrete decisions in the next few years will almost certainly lead to capability gaps and attendant possible drops in personnel morale if obsolescence issues are allowed to afflict the service.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.