The dust has yet to settle. Pro-US tweethandles have been lambasting Malaysia for its ‘shift’ in trade approach – a whopping RM143.64 billion (USD34.4 billion) worth of MoUs have been signed between the two countries that includes what Prime Minister Najib Razak termed as ‘a landmark deal’ – the purchase of four vessels from China to fulfill the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN)’s ‘Littoral Mission Ship (LMS)’ programme. It is a ‘landmark’ deal because it is a departure from the usual military purchases from Western manufacturers.
However, shift it is not. Between January and August of 2016 Malaysian exports totalled RM500.33 billion (USD119.72 billion) with China being the second largest buyer of Malaysian products at RM58.93 billion (USD14.10 billion) surpassing the US by RM6.51 billion (USD 1.56 billion). In the same corresponding period for 2015, China imported RM18.52 billion (USD4.43 billion) more than the US. Malaysia has been trading with China since 1974.
Given the requirements of the RMN, the platform that would be most suitable for the LMS programme is the Type 056 Corvette. The RMN had embarked on several programmes such as the Kedah-class NGPV and the Samudera-class Training vessels with local yards being the preference. In both programmes, the local yards had failed to manage the projects efficiently and effectively causing delays the RMN could not afford. Extra funds had to be pumped in in order to complete the projects.
The ‘KD Perak’, first of the Kedah-class NGPVs to be constructed locally was laid down in March of 2002 and was launched on the 12th November 2007, more than five years compared to less than 18 months for the first two that were constructed at Blohm & Voss as well as the HDW yards. She was only commissioned on the 3rd June 2009, seven years and three months after being laid down! In the end, due to the rising cost to complete the vessels that had been laid down, only six of the Kedah-class was built out of the 27 planned. This had left the RMN barely able to patrol Malaysian waters as almost all the 40-year old patrol crafts had been taken out of service.
The Samudera-class programme in 2011 called for two training ships namely the Gagah Samudera and the Teguh Samudera to be constructed at a local yard in Sijangkang, Selangor. Due to a mismanagement of the programme the yard was unable to complete both vessels although both had been launched in 2012 and had to fold up when a creditor took them to court in 2013. In late 2015, funds were made available only for the Gagah Samudera and a yard in Lumut was selected to complete her fitting out. As of October 2016, she is still undergoing her testing phase. The fate of the Teguh Samudera is still not known.
The Chinese option gives the RMN the edge of procuring proven modern vessels that are common-of-the-shelf (COTS) for a lot less. This augurs well with the RMN as her assets are being stretched thin, with combat boats such as the CB90 doing crew change and supply runs to the various RMN stations located in the Spratlys. Two years ago last month one CB90 went missing for more than a day in rough seas. With the LMS coming online, these tasks could be handed over to these more capable vessels.
Despite being known as a strong ally of the US, the Royal Thai Navy has been using Chinese-made vessels since the mid 1990s when the first two frigates, HTMS Naresuan and HTMS Taksin were commissioned in 1995. Newer and more modern vessels such as the HTMS Pattani and HTMS Narathiwat were commissioned between 2005 and 2007.
Bring COTS model the Type 056 corvette can be obtained quickly as compared to its American contemporary, the Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship (LSC). The Type 056 corvette began production in 2012. To date People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN-N) have commissioned its 25th vessel compared to three of the Freedom-class vessels which began production in 2005. With automation being the key feature of the Type 056, a single unit requires only up to 60 officers and men to operate with a mission endurance of about 21 days compared to the Freedom-class that requires 115 men with the same endurance. This will definitely reduce RMN’s cost of operating each LMS.
The purchase of the China-made vessels also fits into the RMN’s ’15-to-5′ armada transformation programme which aims at reducing the current fifteen classes of vessels built in seven countries to just five – the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS); New Generation Patrol Vessels (NGPV); Littoral Mission Ships (LMS); Multi-Support Ships (MRSS) and submarines.
The move offers the RMN a broader spectrum to choose from for platforms that are fit for purpose based on mission capabilities and the RMN doctrine. This would make the armada more cost-effective to manage and maintain. We have the leadership of the RMN to thank for finally taking the step to transform the organisation into a lean and mean fighting force.