The Malaysian government has issued the country’s first Defence White Paper, even as longstanding plans to replace or upgrade aging equipment have yet again been postponed. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) is especially a victim of the situation, which has been made worse by the political upheaval in 2018 when Malaysians voted to replace the allegedly corrupt establishment government with a new coalition headed by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, now 93 years old.
The tension in the South China Sea is not overtly blamed on Chinese expansionism, although the White Paper refers to “overlapping sovereign claims,” which include some by Malaysia. But for many years, the country’s main security concern has been in the geographically separated eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak. Here, border disputes, illegal fishing, kidnapping for ransom, sea piracy, and even terrorist action are countered by surface vessels, army formations, and in the air by aging RMAF Beechcraft King Air 200T maritime surveillance aircraft, BAE Hawk jets, and Airbus EC725 helicopters. The Army has armed Leonardo AW109 helicopters. The Navy has six Leonardo Super Lynx and armed Airbus AS355 helicopters.
The White Paper calls for more “maritime mission helicopters,” to augment newer warships that are coming into service.
A plan to upgrade the RMAF’s fleet of 28 fifty-year-old Sikorsky S-61 helicopters and transfer half of them to the Army for use as tactical transports has foundered, now that the entire fleet has been retired following an emergency landing last August. That has left only the 12 Airbus EC725s fulfilling that role, and more are being sought. This could include ex-civilian H225s made redundant by the downturn in oil exploration, but their prospects are not helped by their grounding after a fatal accident in 2016.
The White Paper is silent on a previously-stated Army requirement for attack helicopters. This was supposed to be met partly by six MD530Gs for which a contract was signed four years ago. None have been delivered. The long-delayed purchase has now apparently been abandoned. Manufacturer MD Helicopters says the fault lies with the intermediary company in Malaysia, with whom the Malaysian MoD actually contracted.
The sore need for more maritime patrol aircraft will be partly met by the conversion of three of the RMAF’s seven CN235 transports by PTDI. The work will be done by the Indonesian company, but because the mission systems integration will be done by two American companies, the U.S. is paying for it. The aircraft will not have an offensive role against surface vessels or submarines. A medium-range, long-endurance (MALE) UAS for maritime surveillance is on the priority list. Meanwhile, the paramilitary Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) operates Airbus AS365 helicopters and Bombardier CL-215 water-bombers.
As for combat jets, two squadrons of MiG-29s have been retired, leaving just two squadrons each of Sukhoi Su30 MKMs and Hawks and one of F/A-18D Hornets. More Hornets are being sought secondhand. However, a stated requirement for a high-end multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) led Western manufacturers into expensive, high-profile sales campaigns before Malaysia finally admitted there was no money for them. A plan to upgrade the Hawks has also been dropped.
Instead, the RMAF has now drafted a requirement for a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) that will also take over the fighter lead-in trainer (FLIT) from the Hawks and six MB-339s. The contenders are the KAI F/A-50, the HAL Tejas, the Leonardo M346, the Pakistani-Chinese JF-17, the Yak-130, and even the Saab Gripen, a hangover from the MRCA affair. A buy of 36 has been mentioned, and the LCA requirement may be clarified if a request for proposal is issued this year.
For strategic transport, the RMAF remains the only export customer for the Airbus A400M airlifter. Like the four European air forces, the RMAF has been awaiting the delayed clearances for paratrooping and air refueling of helicopters.
The White Paper calls for more air defense, medium-range, and coastal-surveillance radars. The RMAF failed to identify the doomed MH370 airliner after it reversed course and flew over peninsular Malaysia en route to its watery end. Deficiencies in procedures and training rather than equipment were to blame. A fairly new Leonardo RAT-31DL on Penang island revealed the last radar traces of MH370, upon playback. A new ThalesRaytheon GroundMaster M403 radar is based in Sarawak. Now three more air defense radars are being sought, although only one is funded. And there is no mention of another key deficiency—airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft.
The White Paper says that a National Defence Investment Plan will be developed to expand the local defense industry and “enhance research in defense science and technology.” The nation’s premier MRO company Airod, which does depot maintenance for some RMAF aircraft, has been hit by the abandonment of the Nuri and Hawk upgrades. Only the RMAF’s C-130s are getting an avionics refresh.
The noble objectives outlined in this document require increased defense spending. But as yet, there is no sign of that from a cash-strapped government trying to recover from the misdeeds of its predecessor. Malaysia spends under one percent of its GDP on defense. That is similar to Indonesia and a bit less than northern neighbor Thailand. But as a glance around the static park here will show, Singapore spends much more on defense, over 3 percent.