The Royal Malaysian Air Force turns 60 today. Despite turning a year older, the RMAF still maintains the theme of last year’s celebration which is “Air Power Pillar of National Sovereignty” (Kuasa Udara Tonggak Kedaulatan Negara). Yet, despite being a critical element in force projection and taking the fight away from the nation’s territory, the RMAF suffers from lack of attention. The Army has had new equipment added into their inventory including MD530G armed scout helicopters while the Navy has begun embarking on its 15-to-5 fleet modernisation, the Air Force has not seen any major purchases other than the inclusion of the Airbus A400M three years ago.
The responsibility of defending Malaysia’s airspace falls on the shoulders of the Boeing F/A-18D Hornets and the Sukhoi Su-30MKM Flankers. The latter are now undergoing its 10-year service programme which affects the number of aircraft available. The revival of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29N Fulcrums came to a halt when the previous government decided not to fund their refurbishment. And whether there will be any funding for the Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA) programme remains to be seen. As it is right now, I doubt that the MRCA is at the top of the RMAF’s priority list. There are other pressing issues.
MRCA versus LCA/LIFT
Like it or not, MRCAs are very expensive to operate. And the RMAF suffers from having too many types of aircraft in its inventory, creating a logistical nightmare. Many of the interceptions over the South China Sea are done by the BAe System Hawk 208 light multirole fighters. The Hawks are more than 20 years old now and are affected by wear and tear. Subsonic with a thrust to weight ratio of 0.65, the Hawks are not the ideal aircraft for such jobs. Wear and tear due to age is also causing the RMAF to not be able to provide real flying hours for its younger pilots. Although its simulators can now provide high-fidelity training, there is nothing like getting a bird in the air in a real environment.
Once all the Sukhoi Su-30MKM Flankers have undergone the 10th year servicing, the RMAF would have an adequate number of multirole fighters. Therefore, rather than getting MRCAs at this juncture, the RMAF should concentrate on getting light combat aircraft cum lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) aircraft that could minimise the time needed to fully develop its fighter pilots. During World War 2, the Imperial Japanese Navy could not train its combat pilots sufficiently causing it to lose air superiority. Although its aircraft industry could churn out more aircraft, replacement pilots could not be trained fast enough. This is a situation the RMAF needs to avoid. It has to have a sufficient number of very capable and modern LIFT aircraft and a combat version to operate from. More modern contenders such as the Yakovlev Yak-130 and its Italian version the Alenia Aermacchi M-346, as well as the Korea Aerospace Industries KAI T-50 and its light combat aircraft version the FA-50.
A consideration that needs to be taken by the RMAF is the thrust-to-weight ratio of the contenders. The Yak-130/M-346 offer a ratio of 0.70 versus the T-50’s 0.96. The rate of climb for the Yak-130/M-346 is at 10,000 feet per minute while the T-50/FA-50 is at 39,000 feet per minute. The T-50/FA-50 has a digital fly-by-wire (FBW) system as do the Yak-130/M-346, but taking into consideration the commonality of logistics and spares, the T-50/FA-50 uses the same powerplant as the RMAF Boeing F/A-18D Hornets. Furthermore, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia are already using the T-50.
The RMAF should consider having about 36 of the FA-50 variant and 12 T-50 LIFT variant. This would not only prepare enough fighter pilots who would easily migrate to the new MRCAs, but would also complement the current number of MRCAs plus do a better job intercepting bogeys than the Hawks would. Once these are in place, the RMAF can do away with its Hawks and Aermacchi MC339CM.
There used to be a time when the RMAF slogan “Sentiasa Di Angkasaraya” (Always In The Air) was true. Seeing fighters flying overhead often drove many to join the RMAF. We had so many birds flying in a day that even the Air Traffic and Air Defence Controllers had good training. So, getting the number of airframes in the air is what matters.
In the end, when the RMAF does get its MRCAs, it should limit itself to just one type. The economies of scale of purchasing many of one type far outweighs the buying of several of several types. And that is not rocket science.
Enhancing Its Transport/Helicopter Capabilities
Other than having MRCAs and LIFT/LCA, the RMAF also operates various types of transport and helicopter capabilities. Fixed-wing transport aircraft (other than for VIP transport role) include the Airbus A400M, Lockheed C-130H and the IPTN CN-235. The Sikorsky S-61A4 Nuri and the Eurocopter EC725 Caracal make up the helicopter inventory.
The C-130H and Nuri helicopters are definitely more than 20 years old. The C-130H is definitely in need of an Aircraft Upgrade Program (AUP) to address fatigue and cracks. Contrary to popular belief, the A400M was not acquired to replace the C-130H. The A400M is to take a strategic role while the C-130H maintains its tactical role. Both types are needed in the RMAF inventory as they complement each other. What the RMAF needs to do is to offload its Nuri helicopters to the Army (which is already operating several hand-me-down Nuris) and acquire more EC725s. The former is far better for transporting infantrymen and howitzers into the battlefield while the latter is more suitable for Search-and-Rescue operations as well as the insertion and extraction of special forces elements.
Another role that the RMAF should consider offloading is the maritime patrol role. This role only complements the Royal Malaysian Navy’s operations, and should therefore be handed over to the RMN. It makes no sense in having the Air Force pay for the cost of Navy operations.
Sufficient number of training hours flown by the transport pilots are also crucial. One incident has caused an uproar among observers, when the new Minister of Defence flew to a berbuka puasa event with RMAF personnel at the Butterworth Air Base in a RMAF Airbus A400M aircraft. The public must be aware that whether or not the Minister was on board, the A400M would still have flown – if not on that day, then on another, empty or otherwise – just so the pilots could clock at least minimum flying hours for the month.
As the Minister was invited by the RMAF to attend the event, it was arranged for the Minister as well as RMAF top brass and other personnel from Kuala Lumpur (there were 59 passengers on board in total that day) to be flown on the A400M so that the air crew could get their required hours.
Enhancing Radar/Early Warning Capabilities
In the old days, watchtowers were built as high as they could in order to provide the defenders with a form of early warning. We now have air defence radars scattered all over the country. These radars are in constant need of upgrading works to keep them updated. Funds must be made readily available for these radar to be able to operate continuously around the clock.
The RMAF lacks an eye-in-the-sky. From the days when I joined the RMAF in the 1980s, the AWACS have always been sought after but never procured. An AWACS provides the RMAF as well as the RMN a good detail of what is happening both in the sky and at sea. Four AWACS with good loiter endurance based in Kuching working round-the-clock should suffice. Kuching is at the nearest point between Borneo and the Peninsular, and covers the South China Sea easily. This is where, Maritime Patrol Aircraft with anti-ship and anti-submarine capability should be made available for the RMN to complement the its role especially in the South China Sea.
I am not sure but I believe we cannot see much of what is beyond the Crocker range in Sarawak. Mobile radar systems could be stitched along the range to provide better coverage of what goes beyond the range. The data can be fed via satellite or HF system. The RMAF’s HF system is more than capable of providing accurate radar picture of the area.
The Malaysian Army’s “top secret” Vera-E passive radar system should also make its data available and fed into the RMAF’s current air defence radar system to enhance the capability of the the latter. There is nothing so secret about the Vera-E. Several keys tapped on Google and one would be able to find out about the Malaysian procurement of the system. I am flabbergasted that the Malaysian Army has yet to share the Vera-E data with the RMAF. And I first wrote about this back in June 2015!
A Total Change In The Procurement System Is Needed
The RMAF used to operate the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29N Fulcrums. Received in 1995, the two squadrons of MiG-29Ns no longer exist. In contrast, the Bangladesh Air Force (BAF) has a squadron of MiG-29B acquired in 1999. All its MiG-29Bs will be upgraded to the MiG-29SMT. Why can the BAF maintain its fleet of MiG-29s when we can’t?
The answer is probably in the procurement system.
There are just too many layers of companies to go through when we acquired the MiG-29Ns. Spare parts get too expensive to buy when there are too many layers of companies to go through. There were talks of producing parts for the MiG-29N locally somewhere in Gambang, Pahang, but I guess that never materialised for some reason. In the end, the MiG-29N became too expensive to maintain and operate, and I suspect the same applies to many equipment of the Malaysian Armed Forces.
There were times in the past when the end user got what they did not want. It is imperative that the end user gets to dictate the equipment that they want, while the civilian administrators and the politicians seek the funds needed for those procurements, and not interfere in the process.
It is encouraging to hear that the new Minister of Defence will be looking at reforming some aspects of the Ministry of Defence. I really hope that the procurement system will be reformed as well to do away with these layers of companies marking up prices before the end users get their equipment.
Until the reform in the procurement process happens, neither the RMAF, nor the RMN, nor the Army, will ever get what they really want. Such wastage should be nipped and no longer be allowed.
Addressing the budget constraint faced by the government, the RMAF Chief General Tan Sri Dato Sri Haji Affendi bin Buang RMAF said that no matter the situation, the RMAF will always ensure that the sovereignty of the nation is never compromised.
“We shall prioritise our needs and ensure that the sovereignty of this beloved nation is NOT compromised in any way despite the budget constraints.”
General Affendi added that the RMAF has planned for the next 35 years to increase its level of preparedness and combat capabilities.
I certainly hope to see the RMAF have a better future, and hopefully, with a fresh new Minister leading, the required reforms could be made so that the RMAF will truly be what it used to be.
Happy 60th Anniversary, RMAF. May the next 60 years be better than the previous ones.