Defence Services Asia (DSA) in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur last week attracted a nearly full house of exhibitors and a credible number of senior military personnel from armed forces in the region. Inevitably though, the main focus for the media was the host country’s defense procurement programs. These have previously been ambitious but under-funded. Now, though, there are signs of a new realism.
Firm proposals for the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) requirement for a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) that can also serve as a Fighter Lead-In Trainer (FLIT), were received in October 2021. The plan was to acquire the jets in two tranches, 18 plus 18, four years apart. They would replace the RMAF’s MiG-29s (grounded five years ago); BAE Systems Hawks (now nearly 30 years old); and Aermacchi MB339CMs (in service for the last 20 years).
With government finances placed under more pressure because of the Covid pandemic the evaluation slowed, but the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has now made its choice, and forwarded it to the Ministry of Finance. The leading contender looks to be the Korean T/FA-50 Golden Eagle, already ordered by neighboring countries Indonesia and the Philippines. Other candidates are India's HAL Tejas, the Leonardo M346, the Pakistani-Chinese JF-17, and the Turkish Hurjet.
The latter has yet to fly, and so seems an unlikely choice. However, Turkish Aerospace (TA) has made a powerful proposal for Malaysian industrial participation, including production of the fourth Hurjet onwards. At DSA, TA’s president and CEO Prof. Temel Kotil said that the type was “almost ready to fly”. Last October, TA opened an avionics facility near Kuala Lumpur that is being expanded to 100 personnel. Temel also outlined a plan to build TA’s new T625 twin multi-role helicopter in Malaysia. He told AIN that both schemes were not dependent on the Hurjet winning the LCA/FLIT competition—an unusual stance in the international defense bidding business. Perhaps that is because he is more confident of winning another ongoing RMAF competition, for a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial system. A full-scale model of TA’s Anka was on display, and the company signed a partnership agreement with Malaysian defense company DEFTECH.
The RMAF’s current high-end combat aircraft capability is a squadron of 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, and another of just eight Boeing F/A-18D Hornets. Just before the DSA show, the CEO of Aerospace Technology Systems Corporation (ATSC)—the company that supports the Sukhois in Malaysia—expressed confidence that the type could continue flying despite sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine. ATSC is a joint venture between the Malaysian government (70 percent) and Rosoboronexport (30 percent). After earlier support problems that grounded most of the fleet, the scheduled 10-year overhaul program is apparently now proceeding smoothly. Both MINDEF and ATSC say that Malaysia holds two years of spares, and can also tap China and India for support.
Nevertheless, concern about the Sukhois seems to be leading to renewed interest in acquiring the Kuwait Air Force’s fleet of 33 F/A-18C/Ds. The RMAF would probably put about a dozen of them into service. Kuwait is awaiting delivery of 28 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets before letting the earlier models go. Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri is expected to discuss the matter when he visits Kuwait shortly. Meanwhile, after it was reported that Boeing Defence Australia would overhaul the eight existing RMAF Hornets, the task is apparently now being accomplished at their Butterworth home base by Ruag Aerospace, which overhauls the Swiss F-18 fleet.
The MINDEF is also currently evaluating tenders for three maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). For a country surrounded by waters that are plagued by illegal fishing and piracy, not to mention aggressive Chinese expansion into the South China Sea, Malaysia has few airborne assets. The RMAF has three Beechcraft 200T King Airs but otherwise can only field its A400M, C-130 and CN235 transports with visual-only capability. However, three of the CN235s are being converted into maritime surveillance aircraft at PTDI in Indonesia. They are being funded by the U.S. government using a military capacity-building program that has so far provided over $200 million in funding to Malaysia, including 18 Insitu Scan Eagle UAVs for the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN). An informed source close to negotiations told AIN that the Leonardo ATR72MP was favored for the MPA requirement, but Malaysia had asked for the price to be lowered.
At DSA, Johan Pelissier, head of Asia-Pacific for Airbus Defence & Space, said that the C295MPA would be “ideal for Malaysia”. Airbus used the show to mark flying-hour milestones for three products already in Malaysian service: the A400M airlifter (10,000 hours), the AS355 light helicopter (20,000 hours), and the H225M medium utility helicopter (also 20,000 hours).
In fact, the 12 H225Ms (still known locally as EC725s) have now surpassed 25,000 hours. The accelerated use is partly due to Malaysia’s withdrawal of its 27 veteran S-61 Nuri medium-lift helicopters in 2019, without a replacement. Four smaller AW139s have been leased from a local operator as a stop-gap, while a proper replacement for the Nuris won’t be coming anytime soon. At the show, senior defense minister Dato Seri Hishammuddin announced that the RMAF planned to acquire 12 new helicopters from 2026-30, and another 12 from 2031-35. Meanwhile, three new AW139s are going to the RMN, and the Army has just received the six armed MD Helicopters MD 530Gs that were delayed for various reasons.
In addition to the Turkish Aerospace Anka MALE, the show halls were littered with smaller UAVs, both real and projected. There were even two from Azerbaijan. Ironically, though, the UAV that has been grabbing the headlines recently was not on display. The Bayraktar TB2, which has been successfully used by Ukraine to monitor and attack invading Russian forces and is also from Turkey, could not be seen.
However, another system that is now being deployed in that conflict was on display. Thales showed a model of its Starstreak missile, thousands of which are being provided to Ukraine by the UK from British Army stocks. They will be either shoulder-launched or fired from a portable-stand Lightweight Multiple Launcher (LML), but show-goers could view the vehicle-mounted launcher version atop a Malaysian Army vehicle on the stand of Westar, the local partner of Thales. Army officers told AIN that they were pleased with the missile, which flies at up to Mach 3 and uses beam-riding guidance that is difficult to counter.