The Riddle Of The Missing Fighter Bombers

A RMAF A-4PTM (Peculiar-to-Malaysia) Skyhawk

In 1982, 25 A-4C and 63 A-4L Skyhawks which were US Vietnam-era surplus were contracted for purchase costing less than USD 1 million each by the Malaysian government for the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s use.  Of the 88 airframes, 54 were to be converted to single-seater fighter-bombers while 14 were to be converted to two-seater versions for training and conversions.  The rest would be cannibalised for spare parts.

However, the cost for re-engine, new avionics and stretching of some of the airframes made the cost of each airframe balloon FOUR TIMES the purchase price.  The final cost of the programme for these second-hand aircraft was USD320 million (purchase cost was less than USD88 million).

The RMAF Skyhawks were designated the A-4PTM/TA-4PTM (PTM: Peculiar-To-Malaysia). Delivery of 40 airframes began on 23 February 1985, the then-Prime Minister took delivery of ten A-4PTMs and launched No.6 Squadron for the new used aircraft.  The delivery was completed a year later.

23 Feb 1985: The PM received 10 A-4PTM Skyhawks and launched the No.6 Squadron at the Kuantan Airbase

Not many below 50 would remember that 1985 was a year of bad recession in Malaysia.  This was admitted by the then Auditor-General Tan Sri Ahmad Noordin Zakaria who said that apart from the BMF financial scandal (that caused the live of Jalil Ibrahim), the recession also caused budgetary problems and affected the country’s balance pf payments.

1985 was a problematic year, the first recession in the Mahathir years

But that did not stop the government from buying two more aircraft in 1985 namely the Grumman HU-16B Albatross which are seaplanes for use by the Royal Malaysian Air Force.  Coincidentally, Grumman was the contractor that refurbished the A-4PTMs for Malaysia.

Interestingly, the Albatrosses were placed under No.2 Squadron which is a VIP communications squadron.  The USAF’s last flight of the Albatross was in 1973, the last flight of the USN was in 1976 while the USCG last flew the Albatross in 1976.  We bought the pair in 1985 but by 1987 I never saw them fly ever again. 466 were built since 1949 and the last airframe was buit in 1961.  There is no way we had bought two new aircraft.

Malaysia bought two used seaplanes for the RMAF

Only 40 Skyhawks were delivered to Malaysia between – 34 single seater A-4PTMs and six two-seater TA-4PTMs.  The rest remained in the desert and some at the Marana Regional Airport in Arizona.

A-4PTM (M32-40) in the paint shop. Picture by Sean Campbell who is seen standing in the left of this photo

The A-4PTMs and TA-4PTMs started dropping out of the sky as soon as they entered service.  One developed engine trouble in September 1985 while landing and exploded at the Kuantan airbase. The pilot managed to eject.

Three years later, four Skyhawks went down including one piloted by the current Chief of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, General Tan Sri Haji Affendi bin Buang RMAF, while one pilot, Lieutenant Wahi Anuar RMAF remains missing until today after crashing into the South China Sea. I still remember how the annual exercise was put on hold in 1988 because of this incident.

Five more Skyhawks crashed in the following years. Four years after entering service, the RMAF announced that the Skyhawks will be replaced by the BAe Hawks 108/208 in 1994 making the Skyhawks the shortest-lived combat aircraft in the RMAF’s inventory.  Six Skyhawks were retained as aerial tankers using Douglas D-704 external buddy tanks. They were taken completely out of service in 1999.

I wonder whose decision it was for second-hand Skyhawks and Albatrosses to be purchased by Malaysia.  The Minister of Defence from 1981 to 1986 was Mahathir himself, who was replaced by Tun Abdullah Haji Ahmad Badawi in 1986.  Was the RMAF being used as a dumping ground for used goods while people made money out of the RMAF and the lives of its pilots?

In 1984, a year before the delivery of the Skyhawks and purchase of the ancient Albatrosses, Mahathir went to the US and met with President Ronald Reagan at the White House.  In his remark Mahathir said, “I’m particularly happy to note the encouraging signs of economic recovery in the United States, which we consider significant, if not crucial, in assuring a healthy global economy.”

Mahathir added, “In fact, if you were to ask me what is it I would want the United States to do with regard to economic policy, my honest and simple response is for the U.S. economy to get ahead and regain its strength, for the healthier and more vibrant the U.S. economy becomes, the better it will be, not only for the United States and Malaysia but all the developing countries in the world.”

So, it is wrong for Najib Razak to want to help improve the economy of the United States but not wrong for Mahathir to have done the same in 1984.  I wonder whose individual economy also improved with the purchase of those second-hand aircraft?

If you think Hollywood has a scary movie called “IT”, Malaysia’s Opposition has even scarier clowns called “ITS”

If you think it was bad enough that we had paid USD232 million more for 88 Skyhawks that cost less than USD88 million but brought back only 40 which served the RMAF effectively for only nine years, you have not heared the full story.

In 2003, the RMAF decided to sell off the Skyhawks including the 48 airframes that were never brought back to Malaysia.  To their horror, they were asked for a proof of purchase of the 48 that were left there!  While the RMAF had the 40 they received in their inventory, the rest that were paid for never had any receipt produced – that is USD174.72 million worth of airframes that had no proof of purchase.

Even if the 48 were not upgraded, this still means USD48 million worth of defence assets procured using the RAKYAT’s money (to borrow a favourite Pakatan catchphrase) did not come with a receipt saying they are ours.

This also means that the cost of ugrading, which amounted to USD232 million, was only for 40 aircraft.  That makes USD6.8 million the cost for each of the 40 Skyhawks that were sold to us for less than USD1 million each. Amazingly disgusting amount of money paid.  Each upgraded Skyhawk could have given us three F-5Es and the total we paid for upgrading the Skyhawks alone could have gotten us 110 combat-ready Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs (combat-ready F-5Es were selling for USD2.1 million each) which still have operational status worldwide even now.  We were already operating 14 F5-Es and two F-5Fs.

The RF-5E (Reconnaissance) M29-20 that operated with RMAF’s No.12 Squadron in Butterworth

We purchased aircraft that were dangerous for our men and women to fly, for a price tag that defeats logic. What promise did Mahathir make to Ronald Reagan then?

And why are we not owning the remaining 48 Skyhawks that we have bought in 1982?

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