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.

Defence: RMAF – Zooming At 59

General Dato’ Sri Haji Affendi bin Buang RMAF, Chief of Air Force speaking to reporters at the ‘Media with RMAF Day’ recently. To his right is Lieutenant-General Dato’ Sri Haji Abdul Mutalib bin Dato’ Haji Ab Wahab RMAF, Commander of RMAF Operations Command
We shall prioritise our needs and ensure that the sovereignty of this beloved nation is NOT compromised in any way despite the budget constraints.

The above was said by the Chief of the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), General Dato’ Sri Haji Affendi bin Buang RMAF when asked to comment about the effects of the budget constraints on RMAF operations.

True to this year’s 59th anniversary theme which is ‘Kuasa Udara Tonggak Kedaulatan Negara’ (Air Power Pillar of National Sovereignty) the RMAF’s assets will always be ready in any situation and time to deal with any eventuality.

The absence of any stop-gap measure since the RMAF took the MiG-29Ns offline, coupled with the lack of funds for the acquisition of new MRCAs have been worrying.  Although the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) has gotten its boost in assets with the purchase of six Littoral Mission Ships, the lessons of Force Z that ended some 47 nautical miles northeast of Tioman island must never be forgotten.

Force Z comprised of the brand-new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, and destroyers HMS ElectraHMS ExpressHMS Tenedos and HMAS Vampire. On 10 December 1941, Force Z was decimated by Japanese aircraft from Saigon with only the destroyers making it back to Singapore.

Lack of air cover and underestimation of the Japanese force were key reasons to its decimation.

The RMAF has been wanting for a new MRCA and the two strongest contenders are the Dassault Rafale and the Saab Gripen.  There is a need to maintain the number of airframes to meet the doctrine.  However, it does not seem as if the RMAF would be getting any in the near future.

This has prompted the RMAF leadership under General Affendi to bring the MiG-29N back online.  “We will make sure that we have sufficient airframes to conduct the priority missions and not compromise our sovereignty,” added General Affendi.

A senior RMAF MiG-29N jock confided that it is very necessary to have the MiG-29N back online no matter the short-term cost of operating them.

We’ll see probably six to ten of them flying missions soon,” he said.

Maybe you’ll see the return of the Smokey Bandits at the next LIMA!” quipped another, referring to the RMAF’s MiG-29N aerobatic team that used to wow the crowd at previous Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibitions.

The MiG-29Ns will come back online to ensure that the sovereignty is not compromised
Most of the fighter squadrons are based in the Peninsular with only the No.6 Squadron based in Labuan operating the Hawks 208s.  The Hawks have been succesful in intercepting foreign military aircraft in the eastern South China Sea.

There has not been that many incursions by the Chinese.  It’s the countries that are observing the Chinese that have made the most incursions,” confided another senior officer. “The Hawks are doing a good job at intercepting and directing them out of our airspace.”

Even so, the Hawks are limited in terms of endurance, firepower and range to perform such task.  The squadron not only has to cover the development in the Spratlys but also the east of Sabah.

You mean for ESSCOM?” I asked another senior officer.

Not just there. To watch over the Ambalat area too,” he replied. “We could do with at least two G550 AEW equivalent to cover our waters and borders.”

Therefore, it makes real sense to have the MiG-29Ns back online, perhaps based in Labuan, while some Hawk 208s could go on rotational deployment at Sandakan for interdiction missions.

The RMAF is also seeking to develop its capabilities especially in maritime patrol and the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” General Affendi explained. “We need to look for other longer-endurance aircraft and systems that is better than the Beechcraft that we have.”

The RMAF fleet of the Beechcraft 200T MPA have been reduced to just three aircraft after a crash on the 21 December 2016 killed the aircraft commander while two other aircrew survived with injuries.  The Beechcrafts have been in service for almost two decades.

Asked if the recent offer by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces (JMSDF) of its almost three-decades old P-3C Orions, General Affendi said that a team will be sent to evaluate the aircraft offered.

It is not just about operating the aircraft but also the cost of upgrading if needed and maintenance as they are not new aircraft,” he replied. “We do need better MPA capabilities which is why we will scrutinise the JMSDF MPAs and compare them to purchasing and operating newer systems.”

The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Forces has offered Malaysia its decommissioned P-3C Orion MPAs (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
General Affendi thanked the government for its support and understands the constraints faced by the government as a result of a sluggish global economy.  Nevertheless, he said that the RMAF would work within its means to ensure that all systems needed to monitor and intercept incursions as well as to carry out other missions such as Humanitarian And Disaster Relief (HADR) required from time to time.

The Airbus A400M is a good buy. We can carry more load than the C-130Hs ever could and go places the (Boeing) C-17 (Globemaster III) cannot,” said General Affendi of the RMAF’s latest acquisitions. “Imagine how many stops the C-130H needed before getting to the Middle East. The A400M can fly straight to Dubai from here.”

The RMAF says its current strength of four A400M is sufficient to carry out foreseen missions
The RMAF had brought 80 media practitioners from all over the country to witness the capabilities of the force.  Performing Close Air Support displays were F/A-18D Hornets and Hawk 208s while a EC-725 Caracal helo inserted a PASKAU GFAC team to perform GLTD mission for the above aircraft before being extracted via SPIE-Rig method.

No matter the situation, the RMAF will fulfill its motto “Sentiasa Di Angkasaraya” and with a good leadership under the Chief, General Dato Sri Haji Affendi bin Buang RMAF, the RMAF will continue to be rejuvenated at 59.

Selamat menyambut Hari Ulangtahun Tentera Udara DiRaja Malaysia ke-59.

An F/A-18D Hornet makes an aggressive turn

An Eurocopter EC-725 Caracal positions itself to extract the PASKAU GFAC team

Three Hawk 208s orbit the airfield prior to landing

A PASKAU GFAC team is extracted using the SPIE-Rig method

Air Power Is National Power – An Essay

This article was submitted to the RMAF PR Department after Defence writer, Danny Liew asked me if I was participating in the essay-writing contest (that I had no idea about). I quickly wrote one in office and mailed it within 2 hours of writing. I could not write much as we were limited to 2,000 words only (if I remember correctly).

It only won a consolation prize (not surprised though due to the lack of effort I made)



For most of its beginnings, the RMAF operated in support of the Malaysian Army’s and Royal Malaysian Navy’s operations, before finally gaining air defence capabilities in 1963 after receiving ten ex-RAAF CAC Sabre fighters. 56 years after its establishment and in spite of recent unfair criticisms for its mainly misguided and perceived roles, the RMAF is, still without doubt, a force to be reckoned with.

Operating uniquely a combination of modern European, American and Russian aircraft, the RMAF has a power projection that had gotten a regional neighbour publish a defence white paper to discuss what is believed to be “the first nation to have the capability to strike the mainland in sixty years.” Supported by very capable air defence coverage as well as skilled personnel, the RMAF continues to provide assurance that the sovereignty of the nation will be protected at all costs.

However, does the RMAF have enough appropriate assets to truly assert power projection?

Force Projection– Lessons from the Ambalat and Lahad Datu Incidents

“Force Projection” is a term used to describe a nation’s ability to project power and exert influence on its neighbours at the least, and viably regionally or globally.

During the Ambalat incidents from February through May 2005 saw the RMAF deploying some of its assets from the Peninsula to the East. Given the number of offensive air assets the RMAF possesses, had the conflict gone uncontrolled, it would have been a daunting task to defend both sides of the nation.

We again see a deployment of assets from the Peninsula during Ops Daulat to provide close air support for the ground combatants. The RMAF has been continuously been rotating aircraft on detachments from the Peninsula and this is far from being a feasible way of sustaining force projection.

Air Power

The British definition of air power today is:

The ability to project military force in air or space by or from a platform or missile operating above the surface of the earth. Air platforms are defined as any aircraft, helicopter or unmanned air vehicles.”

The above defines the characteristics of modern air power which provides for national deterrence against possible belligerents. The manner in which the RMAF operations are limited to does not allow for sustainable air power projection.

The factors that define effective implementation of air power include:

Airbases. There should be a network of permanent as well as alternative operating bases. Although much of the grass airstrips in Malaysia have been converted into dwelling as well as golf courses, we are still blessed with myriad small airstrips that can effectively operate smaller aircraft suitable for light-attack and helo operations. Civilian airports in Sabah and Sarawak in particular should provide the opportunity for the RMAF to form and house additional squadrons instead of detachments from the Peninsula to effectively oversee its responsibility to provide adequate air defence for those states. While air-to-air refuelling (AAR) can extend the reach of our fighters as well as their loiter time, planning factors such as distance, demand, duration as well as cost generated by the need for enhanced AAR capability need to be taken into account.

Versatility. Our air assets should also be versatile in its multi-role capabilities with quick turnarounds for other roles reconfiguration.

Air Presence. While “Sentiasa Di Angkasaraya (Always in the Air)” may be the motto of the RMAF, it is prohibitively expensive to continuously provide air presence. Already blessed with a relatively good air defence system, and in light of the MH370 incident, the RMAF may need to tweak its air intercept procedures, provided with better engine hours for its interceptors, and impose upon the Department of Civil Aviation for better airspace management control where the former has a better control of not just suspected hostiles, but also of stray friendlies.

Fragility. As air assets grow in terms of sophistication and performance characteristics, so does those of the anti-air defences. As such, suppression of air defences becomes an important and crucial role for air power. During WW2, DeHavilland produced an aircraft that embraced simplicity in battle-damage repair but effective in performance: the almost-all-wood Mosquito. While wood is more fragile than conventional aircraft material, the fragility of the Mosquito was ameliorated by its speed and superb performance. Likewise, the RMAF would need aircraft that has better speed, low radar signature and good self-protection measures to make up for the fragility due to the enemy’s enhanced air defence capabilities. This will ensure the ability of the RMAF to penetrate deep behind enemy air defence lines.

Good intelligence and Quick Response. Air Intelligence Officers must possess the correct knowledge, attitude and the ability to grasp situations in order to have an effective support for air combat operations. As intelligence is perishable, good intelligence is only good if it can be made to good use by the tacticians and strategists before its value becomes outdated. The Decision-Action cycle has to be in a tempo that supersede that of the enemy.

Stand-Off/Reach. The range of modern air-to-air, air-to-surface weapons, as well as the air platforms that carry them will demonstrate the RMAF’s commitment and resolve. This is an area where the RMAF, in moving forward, need to seek balance in when making future procurements of air assets and materiel.

Sustainability. The RMAF must ensure that its manpower, equipment and logistics are able to command its operational and objective requirements. Sustainability is the ability to maintain its aim as prescribed in the Principles of War.

Principles of War

The Principles of War were developed by Major General JFC “Boney” Fuller based on his experiences during the First World War. Applicable also to Air Power, failure to take into account these hard-won lessons can lead to mission failure. They are:

Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. It is imperative that the aim in which the RMAF plans to achieve its objectives must be carefully selected and defined with clarity. The objectives must be attainable and directed to achieving the intended strategic goals. The commanders at all levels must know how to interpret the aim and what is required of them and the resources made available to them to attain the aim. Therefore, the tasks, roles and missions selected for the air assets must be consistent and coherent with the strategic initiatives to achieve this aim.

Maintenance of Morale. Air and ground assets employed by an air force are useless without personnel that are motivated to achieving the aim. Continual training and maintenance of discipline are equally as important for the men and women of the RMAF as well as having commanders who they can look up to and trust in their leadership in times of war and peace.

Security. It is also imperative that physical protection of assets be of utmost importance against enemy interference. All personnel need to embrace the “need-to-know” and information denial culture. For the latter to occur, good and outstanding commanders who command the respect of his/her men and women play exceptional role in maintaining their morale and in making them understand the culture of information denial.

Surprise. Surprise is essential to achieve mission success and must be applied to at all levels of RMAF activities. Surprise can be achieved through secrecy, concealment, deception, originality, audacity and speed.

Offensive Action. The commander must always employ offensive action to influence the outcome of the campaign or operation. With selection and maintenance of the aim, determination must be set to maintain the initiative and deny the enemy from overcoming the goals. In peacetime, force projection via adequate appropriate assets as well as the availability of correct basing of assets provides psychological offensive action. Hence, the Government needs to see that resources are made available to the RMAF to achieve this aim.

Concentration of Force. It is essential to concentrate superior force against the enemy at the decisive time and place which calls for superior and adequate assets, as well as quick reaction to good intelligence to achieve success in war and peacetime.

Economy of Effort. Decisive strength must be achieved and maintained in order to have concentration of force. Therefore, Economy of Effort demands correct air power weapons and delivery systems to match the tasks.

Flexibility. Flexibility allows the commander to exercise judgment by modifying plans without changing the aim. It demands trust, discipline, good training and quick decision-making.

Cooperation. Better cooperation and coordination with other services can be achieved through joint exercises. This allows for concentration of force and economy of effort against the enemy.

Sustainability. As mentioned, sustainability is about maintaining the physical, spiritual and moral aspects, and the necessary fighting power of the RMAF. Without sustainability, the aim will be greatly jeopardised.


Air Power is important in maintaining the nation’s deterrence from belligerence. The RMAF needs the government’s support in acquiring adequate appropriate assets to maintain that deterrence as it projects the nation’s power.