Malaysia Set To Restore Military Aviation Spending After Pre-Election Budget Cuts
All three services of the Malaysian armed forces have received significant cuts to their procurement budget requests for 2012. The political context for this is the build up to a general election, which must be held by 2013. With defense spending being a contentious issue in Malaysia and the need to reduce state spending, the current government has opted for sizable cutbacks.
However, assuming the current ruling National Front coalition retains power, this state of affairs is unlikely to continue beyond the election as the operational demands and needs of the armed forces is expected to require the Malaysian government to release funding for several pending military requirements. A key number of these requirements falls on the military aviation side, not only for the Royal Malaysian Air Force but also for its two sister services, the Malaysian Army and the Royal Malaysian Navy, both of which have plans to further develop their respective aviation arms.
The RMAF accounts for the bulk of Malaysia’s military aviation requirements, with its multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) program to replace its existing Russian MiG-29 fighters being the focus of attention. The air force plans to phase out its remaining eight operational MiG-29s by 2015. The RMAF originally had 18 MiG-29s but lost a pair of them in training accidents, while the other eight have been phased out and cannibalized to support the remaining eight.
Malaysia had issued an initial request for proposal in March 2011 with an envisaged operational entry-service date of 2015-2016. As such, given the normal production cycles of at least 24 months or longer until delivery after signing of a contract, it would appear likely that a decision on the MRCA would have to be made by mid-2013.
There are four aircraft primarily in the running for this requirement: Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault’s Rafale and the Saab Gripen. A fifth aircraft in contention is Irkut’s Su-30MKM, with the RMAF already having 18 of the Russian jets in service.
Despite both defense minister Dato’ Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and RMAF chief general Tan Sri Rodzali Daud having publicly stated on several occasions that only Western-manufactured aircraft will be considered, Russian representatives have argued that they are very much in the running in the competition and that an additional order of Su-30MKMs is also under consideration.
However, the Sukhoi offering appears to be compromised by the technical problems and delays experienced by Malaysia when it introduced the type into its fleet. Coupled with that is the two-man crew requirement for the Su-30MKM, with the current fleet of 18 already taking up a significant portion of the RMAF’s combat aircraft crew and the air force’s current training assets being insufficient in generating adequate numbers of pilots and support crew. On this basis, it seems unlikely that the RMAF would want to compound its personnel shortfall by ordering additional Su-30MKMs.
While focus has primarily been on the MRCA program, the RMAF still has an outstanding requirement for up to four airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C). However, funding for the program has yet to be officially allocated.
Northrop Grumman has been strongly marketing the E-2D Hawkeye, while rival Saab has also been pushing the Erieye AEW&C system, which would be installed on a platform of Malaysia’s choice. Saab has also tied in the Erieye with the Malaysian MRCA requirement, offering it as part of a package with the Gripen. As part of that, at the Langkawi International and Maritime (LIMA) show held in December 2011, Saab signed a memorandum of understanding for joint collaboration with Malaysia’s DRB-Hicom on offering an AEWC system to Malaysia. Airbus has been marketing its C295 AEW platform but the aircraft’s Israeli radar and electronics likely rule it out of contention in regards to Malaysia because of political sensitivities.
Problems with the Airbus A400M transport program have resulted in the RMAF having to accept up to a two-year delay in delivery (falling from 2013-2014 to 2015-2016). However, the air force has taken the setback positively with chief general Tan Sri Rodzali saying that the new time frame will allow more time to prepare the necessary infrastructure and equipment to support the aircraft, which will be the largest aircraft in the air force fleet. The A400Ms will operate out of the RMAF Subang base in Kuala Lumpur and construction is expected to begin there soon for new facilities to support the troop carrier.
Despite the RMAF’s purchase of the A400M and the Eurocopter EC725 helicopter, both the entire existing RMAF C-130 Hercules fleet and a significant portion of the S-61A Nuri helicopter fleet will continue to be in service and are slated for an upgrade and service life extension program. This work is likely to be carried out by Airod Malaysia, which already has an existing maintenance contract with the RMAF for both aircraft. However, some of the RMAF’s requirements for the programs may lead to Airod looking for subcontractors.
The RMAF plans to upgrade the avionics of its C-130 fleet along with installation of glass cockpits and a defensive suite. The latter is a priority due to the increased deployment of the aircraft to high threat areas. Last year, RMAF C-130s conducted emergency evacuations of Malaysian citizens in Egypt, and also provided transport for Malaysian military medical teams serving in Afghanistan. While in neither case have the RMAF C-130s have been threatened by anti-aircraft weapons, the RMAF has been concerned over the aircraft’s nonexistent defenses against such threats.
Despite the purchase of 12 EC725s, Malaysia has laid down the requirement that the RMAF must have a fleet of 27 medium-lift helicopters. With no funding available for additional EC725s, the RMAF is pursuing a service life extension and upgrade for 15 of the current 28 S-61 helicopters to keep them in service.
In the meantime, the Royal Malaysian Navy plans to purchase at least six anti-submarine warfare helicopters, but this requirement is likely to be postponed to 2013 due to the 2012 budget cuts. Sikorsky has been heavily marketing the MH-60R Seahawk for this requirement, although Eurocopter has offered the possibility of a navalized EC725. The navy is keen to expand its air wing, which currently operates six Fennec and six Super Lynx helicopters that have seen extensive use in its ongoing anti-piracy escort mission around the Gulf of Aden.
With its 11 AgustaWestland A109s fully integrated into the Army Air Corps reconnaissance squadron, the Malaysian army is looking toward building a squadron of six to 12 attack helicopters, although this program is also likely on hold temporarily due to the budget cuts. Plans also call for a tactical transport helicopter squadron. Originally, this would have entailed the transfer of the RMAF’s S-61 fleet to the army but this has been scrapped because the RMAF has been unable to obtain funding to replace the S-61 with the EC725s on a one-for-one basis. The army has since prioritized the attack helicopter squadron but the tactical transport helicopter squadron remains part of its long-term goal.