Defence: RMAF Is 60

Su-30MKM
A RMAF Sukhoi Su-30MKM Flanker

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.

maxfoxbatbryansky
A Yakovlev Yak-130 LIFT/LCA (photo courtesy of Max Foxbat Bryansky – jetphotos.net)

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.

Alenia Aermacchi M346
The European Yak-130: the Alenia Aermacchi M-346

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.

kai t-50
A ROKAF KAI T-50B

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.

Hawk 108
RMAF BAe System Hawk 108

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.

A400M
RMAF Airbus A400M

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.

C-130H
RMAF Lockheed C-130H

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.

Nuri
RMAF Sikorsky S-61A4 Nuri

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.

Vera-E
Vera-E passive emitter locating system

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.

Moving Forward

DSCN3839
RMAF Chief, General Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Haji Affendi bin Buang RMAF

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.

Defence: RMAF’s Walks Slowly But With Big Strides

RMAF Airbus A400M (M54-04) on finals at the Labuan airbase during exercise PARADISE 2017

The A400M: How Has It Fared?

When the Royal Malaysian Air Force purchased the Airbus Defence and Space A400M Atlas, many thought it was to replace the Lockheed C-130H-30 that had entered service in 1976.  15 C-130Hs were delivered to the RMAF with 14 still flying.

However, the RMAF announced further upgrades to its C-130H fleet to keep them operational.  The A400M’s role, although similar to that of the C-130H, enhances the RMAF’s airlift capability.  Not only can the A400M carry 17 tonnes more payload compared to the C-130H, it can fly 200 knots faster and land on rough or soft landing strips like the C-130H.

Its glass cockpit/side-stick  coupled with three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) with flight envelope protection configuration makes the A400M user-friendly and is based on the A380 but modified to suit military operations requirements.  The flight envelope protection allows the A400M to perform bank angles up to 120 degrees!

The cockpit of the RMAF A400M (M54-04) is large and is very comfortable

Not only could the A400M support the Malaysian Armed Forces’s tactical and strategic capabilities, it could also be utilised for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations in the region.  To date, the RMAF’s A400Ms have performed two HADR roles: delivering 17 tonnes of aid to embattled Marawi in July 2017 and 12 tonnes of aid to the Rohingya refugees in south Bangladesh in September 2017.

RMAF A400M (M54-04) is being loaded with HADR cargo bound for Marawi

The remarkable thing especially about the Marawi mission was the A400M’s ability to fly to Cagayan del Oro and back without refuelling (an approximately 5,400 kilometers return trip); this, together with its speed cuts down total turnaround time.

The A400M is equipped with the defensive aid sub-system and an in-flight refueling capability.  The inflight-refueling package allows the A400M to refuel helicopters at 105 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS) and fighters at up to 300 knots, hence safer for the refuelling of both helicopters and fighters.  Flight tests have also revealed that at Alpha Max (with the Alpha Floor protection disabled, the A400M reached 98 KIAS before  the FBW low-speed protection function eased the nose down. There was no wing roll-off or loss of control. Recovery was almost immediate when the nose was lowered and thrust added, underscoring the fact that the A400M is indeed a very safe and capable aircraft.

Maritime Patrol Aircraft – Budgeted For

The Beechcraft Super King Air 200T MPA has been in service with RMAF for 23 years

For almost two decades the role of maritime patrol was assigned to several C-130Hs that were converted to C-130MPs.  Four Beechcraft Super King Air B200T aircraft were inducted into the RMAF maritime patrol fleet to complement the C-130MPs.  However, the high operational costs versus mission requirements of the C-130MPs saw the latter taking over the role completely.

Even before the loss of an airframe, there were already talks of replacing the B200Ts.  Leonardo brought its ATR-72MP aircraft to LIMA ’17.  Apart from the hardpoints and MPA modules on board, the ATR-72MP is just a normal commercially-available aircraft, powerplants and all.  Leonardo’s concept is to provide a platform using what is available in large numbers in the market to keep the costs down.

The Leonardo ATR-72MP, seen here at LIMA 17, also comes with an electronic surveillance and C4I platform. The airframe is that of the ATR-72-600 (photo courtesy of Janes Defence)

Airbus Defence and Space flew a CN295 almost around the world to promote it as a multirole platform.  The CN295, albeit a SAR version that was on its way to its new home in Brazil, made a stop in Malaysia and was presented to operators such as the RMAF, the MMEA, as well as the Royal Malaysian Police Air Wing.

Stretched three metres longer than the CN235 that the RMAF is currently operating, everything about the CN295 is very similar to the CN235, which makes crew conversion fairly easy to make.  It comes with a more powerful plant that features better efficiency, longer loiter capability at station and comes with six external hardpoints for ASW weapons.

When the announcement of the budget for the procurement of four MPAs in 2018 was made, the immediate follow-through was that four of the RMAF’s remaining seven CN235s will be fitted with the MP systems from the B200Ts, a sure sign that either additional CN235s will be acquired for the MPA role, or the CN295s would be acquired instead.

The commonality between the C295 and the CN235 also potentially leads to  even lower operating costs, given the versatile cabin configuration that allows fast switching of mission types, high manouvrability, better low-level flying capabilities given the high-wing configuration and a wide rear ramp, the C295 makes the best option for maritime patrol and surveillance as well as anti-submarine warfare missions in Malaysia.

The C295 is powered by twin PW127G turboprop engines driving Hamilton Sundstrand Type 568F-5 six bladed propellers which provide outstanding hot and high performance, low fuel consumption, and an endurance exceeding 11 hours.  Flying at a maximum speed of 480 km/h which is slower than the  B200T’s 540 km/h, but has a range of 5,600 kilometers compared to the  B200T’s 3,100 kilometer range.

The RMAF’s need for a reliable platform that would be able to perform largely anti-shipping missions and has a reasonable but economical loiter endurance with some strike capability if required makes the CN295 a better choice of MPA. It also makes strategic and economical sense for Malaysia as it allows operators to narrow down its aircraft types and suppliers, making logistical and technical support easier.

The Airbus C-295 of the Força Aérea Brasiliera arrived at the Subang airbase on Friday 7 July 2017

UAV, MRCA and LIFT

Although the procurement of the badly needed MRCA to replace the MiG-29Ns have not been announced, the RMAF is making up for the void by ensuring high serviceability rate of its frontliners.  Observers would note that the serviceability percentage has increased tremendously despite the cut in the defence budget.

Perhaps the RMAF should think of an interim fighter or Lead-In Fighter Trainer  (LIFT) that gives the bang for bucks.  The Korea Aerospace Industries’s TA-50 LIFT comes into mind.  Each unit of the more advanced FA-50 costs half or three times less than a top-of-the-line fighter would but it carries enough sting to hurt the enemy.

RoKAF Black Eagle’s KAI T-50B zooms above Langkawi during LIMA 17

Losing only but not much in terms of range to the BAe Systems Mk 108/208 that the RMAF currently deploys in Labuan to cover both the eastern South China and Sulu seas, the TA-50’s ability to reach supersonic speeds (Mach 1.5 compared to the Hawk’s Mach 0.84) and excellent thrust-to-weight ratio (0.96 to the Hawk’s 0.65) means that the TA-50 would make a better aircraft placed on Alert 5 to intercept straying foreign aircraft. Its superb ability to deliver air-to-ground as well as anti-shipping ordnances makes it a suitable platform to support anti-incursion/counter-insurgency operations in the ESSCOM area.

The RMAF is also interested to develop its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle capability in both tactical and strategic aspects.  RMAF Chief General Tan Sri Dato Seri Affandi bin Buang TUDM said that the RMAF is conducting a detailed study to identify the UAV capable of meeting the current needs of the country apart from being equipped with technologies which could be shared with various parties in the country.

The Chief of RMAF (second from left) speaking to reporters during Exercise PARADISE 4/2017 at the Kota Belud Air Range

Besides security surveillance, UAV can also be used for other purposes such as weather information and others,” he said. “If the RMAF is able to acquire sophisticated UAVs we would be able to enhance our operations in the Peninsular, Sabah, Sarawak and also in support of the MPAs patrolling the South China Sea as well as the Sulu Sea.

Hopefully the RMAF would acquire UAVs with extended on-station endurance with some hardpoints for strike capability.

Epilogue

Although the RMAF is still in want of frontline airframes, it is seen to improve its serviceability percentage, a task that seemed daunting in times of global econmic uncertainty, but certainly achievable.  The plan to purchase capable Maritime Patrol Aircraft as per the 2018 Budget, and planned addition of sophisticated UAVs, will certainly enhance its control over the airspace.

It is hoped that the government could look into equipping the RMAF with interim strike capability, especially in the South China and Sulu seas, by adding a squadron or two of the KAI TA-50, if not a squadron each of the TA-50 and its frontline version, the FA-50, hopefully by 2020, before preparing its budget for the procurement of actual frontline MRCAs that are badly needed, not only as replacements of the recently-retired MiG-29N, but also as a contingency to replace the F/A-18D which is already in its 20th year of service with the RMAF.

The RMAF may seem to walk slowly, but it is definitely walking with big strides.

Defence: The Brave Die But Once

It is a sad day for the nation. We lost two Ops Daulat heroes, Major Mohd Hasri Zahari RMAF, and Major Yazmi Mohamed Yusof RMAF.  The nation mourns for them.  What happened to them 21 minutes into their flight, 60 kilometers North Northeast from the Kuantan Air Base will not be known until the Board that has been set up to investigate this incident comes out with its final report.

Details are sketchy.  The pair took off at 11.09am and communications was lost at 11.30am.  They were said to be performing a Functional Check Flight, which requires a rather complex form of flight manouvers depending on the function that needs to be tested.  For example, an aircraft that has recently had an engine change will need a specific profile for that Functional Check Flight.

If it was a Functional Check Flight, the crew would have had a checklist that they needed to follow.  They would record their findings according to each of the item, in sequential order, given in the checklist for them to perform before signing off upon completion of the Functional Check Flight.

Something must have happened in the midst of the flight that only the Board would be able to deduce after gathering all the facts.

Officers and men (and women) of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, like in the other services, are paid to die if necessary.  When they step into the aircraft, no matter how well they are maintained, there is that nagging little part in their mind that knows that there is a chance that they might not come back alive.  Just as we drive to work every day.  When we leave home, how sure are we that we will get to see our family again?  But the pilots knew what was expected of them when they applied to join His Majesty’s Armed Forces.  We, as Malaysians, know that these two would die for anything as long as others may live. My only grouse is, every time something like this happens, instant “experts” flood the Internet with baseless accusations and theories.

THEORY NO.1 – LIKE MH370 THE RMAF RADAR PEOPLE ARE SLEEPING AGAIN, THAT IS WHY THE AIRCRAFT IS STILL MISSING

For those who still think that radar covers everything that is above the surface of the Earth, please have someone swing a baseball bat at your head – repeatedly.  Radar only covers some 15 percent of the surface of the Earth.  The Air Defence people did not sleep that night when the MH370 went missing.  They saw where it went until the aircraft went out of radar coverage.  You can read more about it here. The details of the flight may have changed a bit as we have learnt much more about what happened at night, but the RMAF was spot on with its procedures.

In the case of the missing BAe Hawk 108 aircraft, you must first know how radar works.  The radar transmits a radio beam which bounces off a flying object, and the beam that is bounced back is received by the radar’s receiver.  This is then translated as an image on the radar screen for the operator to see.

I explained a bit more early this month on how the RMAF Air Defence radar works.  Please read about it here.

The Hawk went down.  Which means it no longer reflected any beam for the radar receiver to receive.  How can there be any image showing on the screen?  So based on the last seen position, a search-and-rescue team was dispatched by helicopter to the last known location of the missing Hawk.  They found the bodies of the pilot but not the aircraft.  This I shall answer in…

THEORY NO.2 – THE HAWK IS MISSING BECAUSE THE RMAF DOES NOT KNOW WHERE IT IS

This is the obvious, actually.  If the RMAF know where the aircraft is, this theory of your would be academic.  But no.  If you expect to find a wreckage that is almost intact, think again.

In 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 fell out of the sky after taking off from Miami and disappeared in the Everglades.  The DC-9 aircraft with 110 on board was shredded into pieces by the impact.  It took months before they could retrieve as many pieces of the wreckage that could be found.

In 1993, an RMAF PC-7 crashed into a paddy field in Perlis.  The PC-7 is a much slower aircraft compared to the Hawk.  When I arrived at the scene, it too was shredded into pieces.  Nothing that resembled an aircraft could be seen.  We found the engine a couple of days later buried 12 meters deep in the soft paddy field.

The ground where the Hawk is said to have gone missing is a secondary jungle that is swampy in nature.  The wreckage could be in there somewhere. All we need to find is the impact point.  This may also be related to Theory No.4.  But that is for later.

THEORY NO.3 – THE HAWK IS AN OLD JUNK

How old is old for an aircraft?

I shall not compare military aircraft to civilian airliners.  I shall not even compare the Hawk to the C-130H that we have been operating since 1976.  They conduct different missions and face different kind of airframe stresses.  However, be mindful that the Royal New Zealand Air Force operates C-130s that are more than 50 years old.  Older than I am, in fact.

I will then compare the Hawk to another aircraft that probably faces even greater airframe stresses – the F-16A.  The United States Air Force retired its F-16s that entered service in 1979 only five years ago.  Therefore they were in service for 33 years!  The Hawk has been in service in the RMAF for 22 years now.  The USAF has over 5,000 aircraft and the average age of 25 years!  The Republic of Singapore Air Force only retired its A-4SU after 31 years in service.  In fact, our F-5Es entered service in 1975 and was only retired in 2015 the same year the RSAF retired its F-5Ss after 36 years!  Was it old?  Ask a Tiger-driver how superb the F-5 was as it was retired.  Only the avionics could be considered old.

THEORY NO.4 – WHY DIDN’T THEIR CHUTES OPEN? DON’T THEY HAVE EJECTION SEATS?

The bodies were found 20 meters from each other.  An eyewitness said that she saw both men with their chute deployed.  I don’t know how credible this eyewitness is.  I hope that she is not as credible as the makcik who said she saw the MH370 somewhere in the North Andaman Sea from 40,000 feet.

Truth be told, I am sure that the top brass are as equally perplexed as I am.  That is why they have convened a Board to investigate this.

Could they have ejected?  Perhaps.  I can only think of them being too low and were in a full dive when they did so.  Back i the 1980s, an Aermacchi MB-339A that was performing aerobatics went into a dive.  The air crew ejected but they were too low and the orientation of the aircraft was not one in which they could have ejected safely.  At least one of the air crew wen through the wall of a house.

Being in full dive would also explain the missing aircraft as it could be in shreds with a large portion of it down in the swampy ground.  I can only speculate here and I hate to speculate.

So, let us just let the RMAF conduct their investigation and we get on with our daily lives, can we?  And in the meantime, let us offer our heroes some prayers, and pray that the family they have left behind be given the strength to face the dark days ahead until light comes shining back into their life.

And stop hiding behind user names and keyboards while hitting out at the RMAF over this incident.  Cowards will die many times while the brave die but once.

Defence: The Silent Sentinel

An RMAF Sukhoi Su-30MKM multirole combat aircraft performs a tight turn on a hot afternoon

Many are awed by the performances put by the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s stars at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace 2017 exhibition – the Sukhoi Su-30MKM Flanker and the Boeing F/A-18D Hornet.

Many can imagine the manoeuvres these mighty aircrafts could do in combat, but not many know who or what makes them tick.

They are the Air Defence Controllers, the guardians of Malaysian airspace.

An air defence radar basks in the sunset

Majority of Malaysians are not aware of their existence until the MH370 disappeared.  Suddenly, this silent service came under an intense spotlight, especially when shone by those who do not have an iota of idea of how airspace and air defence in Malaysia work.

When Malaya gained independence in 1957, the airspace of the nation was only monitored by two long-range radars located at Western Hill in Pulau Pinang and Bukit Gombak in Singapore through the Anglo-Malayan Defence Arrangement which ended in the late 1960s.

The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) set up three air defence centres (ADCs) namely the No.1  ADC at the Butterworth airbase, No.2 ADC at Bukit Jugra, and No.3 ADC at the Kuantan airbase.  These three ADCs shouldered the responsibility of monitoring our airspace.

The late Tun Haji Abdul Razak visiting the No.1 ADC accompanied by the Chief of RMAF, Air Vice Marshall Dato’Sulaiman bin Sujak (later Tan Sri)

The RMAF has since expanded its air defence by creating five squadrons to also cover Sabah and Sarawak, and one Ground-Based Air Defence Squadron.

So how is it that it is the Air Defence Controllers who make the fighters tick?

There are two types of radar in use by the RMAF, Primary and Secondary.  While the radar rotates 360-degrees, radio waves are transmitted and will bounce off targets as an echo and is received by the radar system’s receiver unit.

The Primary radar is the one that transmits the energy waves that bounces off targets while the Secondary radar interrogates the signal from the target’s transponder.  This is then processed and the data is fed into the Command and Control system which is displayed on a screen and the target is then tracked by a Surveillance Officer who tracks and labels the target.

An Identification Officer then conducts identification procedures by correlating both radar and track data with information received from other agencies such as the Department of Civil Aviation.  If the target does not correspond with a non-hostile or non-civilian target, then the unidentified target will be reported to the Officer-in-Charge.

An RMAF radar Command and Reporting Centre (CRC)

The Officer-in-Charge then conducts a threat assessment and evaluation of the unidentified target.  Simultaeneously, the recognised air situation data is also displayed in the National Air Defence Centre to enable the Higher Authority to monitor the situation and assist effective decision making.

A visual identification of the unidentified target may be needed, or if the target poses a threat, the Officer-in-Charge then scrambles fighters to intercept the target.  If threat exists, the RMAF’s surface-to-air defence systems would be put on the highest alert to anticipate a hostile act by the said target.

A fighter is scrambled to intercept the target

The pilot intercepting the target will then make a visual identification of the target and report back to the Fighter Controller.  Instructions and orders from the Higher Authority are also relayed back to the intercepting pilot who will then execute either a Force Down procedure or chase the target out of our airspace while comunicating with the target either through the radio or signals.

Only if the instructions are not obeyed will the pilot escalate the rules of engagement.  If the instructions are obeyed and a force down is required, the intercepting pilot will escort the target to the nearest airfield or airport where the target will be investigated.

The elaborate and complex systems that the RMAF Air Defence Centres employ are among the best, and therefore need the continuous support and understanding of not only the higher management of the RMAF, but also of the Government to ensure that hardware, software and its operators remain dynamic, well-maintained and trained.

And although they are mostly trained locally by the RMAF, some do get their training elsewhere in the world. For example the RMAF has had officers do their Basic Air Defence Operator Course in Australia.  Some get trained as Air Weapons Controller in the United States of America. Some attend their Master Controller Course in England, Advanced Defence Weapons Controller in Bangladesh to name a few.

RMAF Air Defence Officers attending their Basic Air Defence Operators Course in Australia during the earlier days of the RMAF

And when you spend your time with your family, friends, or sleep at night, and while the interceptor pilots are on standby inside their crew room, remember this – you only get to go about living a happy life and going about with your personal business because of these glamourless silent sentinels who watch our airspace round the clock.