The RMN 15 to 5 Programme Is On Track

15to5

The Royal Malaysian Navy has recently laid the keel for the third Littoral Combat Ship (to be named Shariff Masahor after the Sarawak warrior who fought against the White Rajahs) at the Boustead Naval Shipyard in Lumut.  This will be the third of six LCS planned by the RMN as part of its ’15 to 5′ transformation programme.

Dogged by having as many as 15 classes of ships with an average life of 15 years, the current RMN fleet is supplied by seven different nations, causing logistical and financial nightmares for the operators. As a result, the RMN cannot have the kind of force projection that it envisages.

The transformation programme allows the RMN to reduce its current classes to just 5 classes of ships namely the LCS, the Littoral Mission Ships (LMS), the Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS), submarines, and the patrol vessels (PV).

The LCS, with its ability to perform complete multi-mission 3-D operations, will be the obvious class to spearhead the Royal Malaysian Navy.  The six vessels, based on the Gowind 2500 corvette design, will fulfill the operational requirements in both the blue and littoral waters of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

All six vessels are and will be built at the Boustead Naval Shipyard (BNS), which is a bit unorthodox given the need for a good project risk management as not to repeat the disaster caused by a previous builder.  The GMD of Boustead Heavy Industries Corporation (BHIC), Vice-Admiral Tan Sri Ahmad Ramli Mohd Nor TLDM (Retired) said that the project team from both BNS and Naval Group have taken the necessary measures to prevent such failure to occur in this project.

Commonality between classes is also key to the success of the 15-to-5 programme.  Admiral Tan Sri Ahmad Kamarulzaman bin Hj Ahmad Badaruddin TLDM said that all the classes will have major items that are common to ensure the availability of vessels.  Most importantly, these items are being supplied by 104 local vendors and that in turn has created thousands of jobs and endless learning opportunities for locals.

“The Navy is determined to show that not only does it give opportunities to local companies, but also help build the local defence capabilities to reduce reliance on foreign companies,” said Ahmad Kamarulzaman.

The Navy hopes to have up to 12 LCS, 18 LMS, four submarines, 18 PVs and three MRSS to fulfill its doctrine requirements.  It is believed that the PVs will consist totally of the Kedah-class NGPV while two more Scorpene submarines will be acquired depending on the funding from the government.  It makes a whole lot of sense to have the Kedah-class expanded as Malaysia is already in possession of the builder’s plans, while the acquisition of two more Scorpenes would be a lot cheaper as the infrastructure as well as logistics support are already in place.

In observation however, if all these vessels are already in service, there is only so many number of vessels that the Navy’s bases can handle at any given point of time.  I believe that the PVs will all be deployed to the Second, Third and (soon) Fourth Naval Regions, with major assets such as the LCS and LMS divided between the First and Second Naval regions.

How The Royal Malaysian Air Force Fits In

Commonality is another goal the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) hopes to achieve.  Recently, RMAF Chief General Tan Sri Dato Seri Affandi bin Hj Buang TUDM celebrated his first year as the service’s Chief.  Although dogged with several incidents of crashes, it has not diminished his team’s aim to elevate the RMAF’s ability as a force to be reckoned with.  Only the cut in defence budget has curtailed some of its plans for expansion.  The withdrawal of the MiG-29Ns from the frontline has stretched its frontline capabilities too thin.

Although the reintroduction of the MiG-29Ns back into service was thought of as an interim measure before getting its direly-needed MRCAs, this was not agreed by the government as it does not want to see its pilots flying aircraft that may endanger themselves.  This would also mean that the RMAF’s current LIFT, the Hawk 208s which are in their 23rd year of service, will soon have to go.

The 15-to-5 programme of the RMN would not mean much without sufficient air cover for the Navy to keep the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) open, especially between states in the Peninsular Malaysia with Sabah and Sarawak.  The RMAF is already in the process of looking for a suitable replacement for the Beechcraft Super King Air B200T MPAs.  If commonality is a key to this, then we would either see the Air Force acquiring either more CN-235s, or opt for a stretched version which is the CN-295.  However, given the different powerplant of the CN-295, a MPA version of the CN-235 sounds most viable.

Combat Air Patrols, or sufficient and adequate air cover is also critical to the success of the RMN’s 15-to-5 programme.  However, current number of aircraft available to perform the task is limited as only the Boeing F/A-18D Hornet and Sukhoi Su-30MKM would have the ability to get into the theatre in the shortest time compared to the BAe Systems Hawk 108s and 208s.  Furthermore, the Su-30MKMs would have to undergo their 10-year maintenance and that would affect the number of availability.

As it is, the supersonic Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50/FA-50 LIFT cum light fighters are the most suitable for this role, as well as to take over the LIFT role from the BAe Systems Hawk 208s.  I have written on the KAI T-50 in a recent article and still believe that other than its cost (said to be a third of a full-fledged fighter aircraft) the commonality that the KAI T-50 have with a type of aircraft that the RMAF is already operating is the Boeing F/A-18D Hornet as they use the same powerplant. Should the RMAF plan to acquire more of the Hornets, the T-50 would be the best option for the RMAF to consider acquiring as they can play the dual role of LIFT and advanced supersonic fighter far better than the Hawks ever could.  The RMAF would be able to provide more capable birds in the air in a shorter amount of time while waiting for a much larger budget to actually acquire new MRCAs.  The T-50s are combat-proven and have performed well in recent bombing missions against the ISIL-Maute group in Marawi.

Having the T-50s in Kuantan as LIFT/Advanced Fighters and as a advanced fighter detachment in, perhaps, Bintulu, would enhance the RMAF’s operational capability not just as a strike force, but also to provide air support for the Navy’s surface missions.  The Chief of RMAF is well-known as a fighter and operations man, and is therefore the perfect person to make a case to fulfill the RMAF’s doctrine with the correct equipment needed by his frontliners.

Summary

The Royal Malaysian Navy is spot on when it decided to go with its 15-to-5 transformation programme that would see more lean-and-mean vessel types be introduced into the service.  However, having a good surface capability without capable air support from the Royal Malaysian Air Force would limit its capabilities to keep hostiles away.  Both services would need strong support from the government to ensure that force projection to deter opportunistic hostile forces can be achieved by both services.

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: Airbus C295 Another Possible Platform For Malaysia’s MPA

Even before the incident involving the crash of a Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) Beechcraft Super King Air B200T Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) talks were rife in the industry about the limited capabilities the T200 could offer as an effective MPA and possible replacements.

The four, four-man crew aircraft in the RMAF’s inventory  complementing the C-130MP in performing the MPA role but subsequently replaced the latter due to operational costs versus mission requirements.

RMAF Beechcraft Super King Air B200T MPA

The B200T, however, has a limited endurance of four hours, maximum cruise speed of approximately 300 knots (540 km/h) which makes its on-station loiter time somewhat limited unless the aircraft is deployed on a detachment which means logistics support have to be deployed as well.  In the long run it would be uneconomical for the RMAF to run such missions.

Malaysian has recently expressed interest in second-hand Lockheed/Kawasaki P-3C Orion of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) which are being replaced by the Kawasaki P-1 MPA. Although the RMAF is understandably weary of “hand-me-down” aircraft, the ready-to-fly P-3Cs offer an attractive opportunity to close the maritime patrol gap with hardly much that is needed to be done.  The P-3Cs have internal bays for torpedoes and depth-charges plus ten hardpoints on the wings for anti-ship missiles, torpedoes and mines.

The downside is that the last P-3C Orion to be delivered to the JMSDF by Kawasaki was on 1 February 2000, making the aircraft offered to the RMAF 17 years old or more!  The last aircraft delivered by Lockheed was in December 1994. The four Allison T-56-A-14 turboprop engines, although giving more speed, could only give a maximum range of 3,835 kilometers, which is only 700 kilometers more than the B200T, making the P-3Cs true gas-guzzlers. In December 2008, the US Navy had to ground 39 P-3Cs or 1/4 of its fleet due to age-related wing cracks. The average age of the Orions then were 28 years old.  17-year old P-3Cs have less than 15 years to offer to the RMAF unless an expensive service-life extension program is initiated for the fleet.

If acquired, the P-3Cs would be flying mainly RMAF’s anti-shipping missions.  These missions would require the aircraft to fly near wave-cap levels where the engines not only burn more fuel, but also be demanding on both the crew and the aging airframe.

JMSDF P-3C Orion (courtesy of Today’s Atsugi)

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 drove Airbus Defence and Space to fly the Asian route while delivering an Airbus C-295 Maritime Surveillance Aircraft to Brazil.

The aircraft, which is in a Search-and-Rescue configuration, made its stop in Malaysia late on Friday evening after Thailand and Vietnam.

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

Airbus Defence and Space’s marketing director Fernando Ciara explained that Airbus had decided to fly the Asian route through Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, North America, Mexico before delivering the aircraft to the Força Aérea Brasileira to showcase a platform that not only would be suitable for the SAR/MPA/ASW roles but would be friendlier for aircrews to transition to given that most of the countries mentioned, especially to Mexico, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are already operating either the C-295 or CN-235 aircraft, while Canada has been authorised to purchase the C-295.

Fernando Ciara, Airbus Defence and Space marketing director explaining the capabilities of the C-295

The commonality between the C-295 and the CN-235 also potentially leads to  even lower operating costs.  Ciara added that 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 C-295 makes the best option for maritime patrol and surveillance as well as anti-submarine warfare missions in Malaysia.

The C-295 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 P-3C’s speed of 760 km/h and the B200T’s 540 km/h, but has a range of 5,600 kilometers compared to the P-3C’s 3,800 kilometer range and the B200T’s 3,100 kilometer range.

This first of two SAR aircraft will be delivered to the 2º/10º GAv (2nd Squadron of the 10th Aviation Group) of the Força Aérea Brasileira at Campo Grande, Brazil

The anti-submarine warfare version, which is already in service with one operator, is equipped with underwing stations to carry weapons and other stores.

The Brazilian SAR C-295 carries the Elta EL/M-2022A(V)3 surface-search radar

The C-295 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.

Malaysia is Airbus’ third largest market in Asia, after China and India.  Today there are 125 Airbus commercial aircraft flying with Malaysia’s airlines, with another 470 on order for future delivery.

200 Airbus helicopters are also being operated in Malaysia including the H225M and AS555SN flown by the Malaysian Armed Forces, and the AS365 in service with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.

In addition to the CN235s, the RMAF is Airbus’s first export customer for the new generation A400M airlifter and has four aircraft in service.