MMEA’s Baptism of Fire

The two Vietnamese fishing vessels that had attacked the MMEA’s patrol craft

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) recently experienced its baptism of fire literally when one of its patrol craft came under attack from Vietnamese fishermen on board two fishing vessels. Early today, an Indonesian smuggler was shot dead in a scuffle with an MMEA personnel.

Incident with the Vietnamese fishermen

The incident involving the Vietnamese fishermen occured some 81 nautical miles from Tok Bali, Kelantan, inside the Malaysian Maritime Zone. This is equivalent to the distance where most of our offshore drilling platforms are located – 150 kilometers from the mouth of the Tok Bali river.. It also means that the Vietnamese fishing vessels were most definitely far from their own waters. They are known to have gone as far south as the Indonesian Natuna islands and have recently rammed several boats from the Indonesian Department of Fisheries to avoid being detained.

Not only that, towards the end of April of last year, two Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels rammed an Indonesian navy vessel in order to stop the latter from detaining several Vietnamese fishing vessels.

In the previous Sunday’s incident, they waited for the seven-men crew of the ‘Penyelamat 7’ to come close to their vessel before ramming their boat, throwing objects including iron blocks, wrenches, sharpened iron rods, cooking gas tank and others at the boat and crew. They have also prepared diesel bombs in several barrels on board their vessel which they threw at the boat with the intention of destroying it and its crew. In defence, the crew fired several warning shots to deter the crew of the fishing vessel from intentionally hindering the enforcement from boarding and inspecting. Still, they did not stop. The consequence, unfortunately, is in the form of a dead Vietnamese fisherman.

Incident with Indonesian smugglers

Near Tanjung Sedili early today, the MMEA foiled an attempt to smuggle exotic birds, the White-Rumped Shama and the Magpie Robin, by Indonesian smugglers using two fibreglass speedboats. The MMEA managed to stop the first boat and detained three Indonesian men aged between 40 to 62 and discovered about 90 cages filled with the birds mentioned.

A second boat arrived unaware that the first boat had been detained. An MMEA personnel jumped on board in an attempt to stop it. The boatman accelerated away in a dangerous manner where he tried to ram the MMEA patrol boat. A struggle ensued between the boatman and the enforcement officer where the former had tried to seize the latter’s weapon. Warning shots were fired by the other enforcement officers but this too was ignored, and a decision was made to use reasonable force to stop the smugglers from harming the enforcement officer on board their boat. A shot was fired and one of the smugglers was hit, and later pronounced dead on arrival at the Tanjung Sedili Medical Centre.

Formation of the MMEA

The men of the MMEA were just doing their job under but not limited to Section 7(2)(b) and Section 7(2)(d) of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency Act, 2004 which allows them to board any vessel with the purpose of inspecting and searching, and investigate any offence that is being committed, or about to be committed, or has been committed. The 19 Vietnamese fishermen as well as the Indonesian smugglers that have been detained are now being investigated especially under Sections 307 and/or 186 of the Penal Code for the attempt to murder and for obstructing public servants from carrying out their duties.

The formation of the MMEA was mooted in 1999 and tabling of the MMEA bill was made in Parliament in 2004. Prior to its formation, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was managed in a sectoral manner by 11 government agencies and departments, involving 5,000 personnel and more than 400 vessels of all types. A singular and dedicated approach was required, leaning towards the roles of a coast guard, as both an enforcement agency as well as combatant in times of war – in other words, it is a paramilitary body. It in not any different than the Royal Malaysian Police’s General Operations Force (PGA). But unlike the police, the MMEA has the power to investigate and prosecute.

The MMEA acquired hand-me-down assets from the various marine departments and agencies, some of which are already in their 60s. Although procurements of new vessels have been made, the bulk of vessels patrolling our waters are more than 30 years old. Not only that, the numbers are not sufficient to cover the operations. Larger but older vessels need regular maintenance for them to be able to operate continually. Hence, smaller boats that are not meant for long-distance patrols and have no on-station endurance have to be employed.

In Dire Need of Newer and Suitable Assets

It was probably based on this knowledge that the fishing vessels involved in the recent incident were armed with improvised weapons meant to cause the destruction of these smaller patrol boats. Imagine what would have happened to the brave crew of the 20-meter Penyelamat 7 had their boat sunk that day. Desperate to not lose their livelihood if caught, these fishermen would do anything at all to avoid arrest. In April 1993, a Royal Malaysian Navy personnel whom had boarded a fishing vessel off Pulau Kapas in Terengganu was kidnapped, possibly after being overpowered, and was never found. I was made to understand that this almost happened to the men of the MMEA.

We need to understand that these fishing vessels work in packs of several vessels per pack. The MMEA would have to spread itself really thin to follow these packs. When a boarding party has successfully boarded a vessel, the MMEA patrol boat will then go after the other boat. Now imagine this: each fishing vessel is crewed by about ten men. Each Penyelamat-class boat has a crew of about eight. How many MMEA personnel can be put on each fishing vessel safely if they are not to be overpowered, and if there are three or four fishing vessels in a pack? In the case of the Penyelamat 7, it would have taken two hours and 40 minutes for another fast MMEA boat travelling at a speed of 30 knots to get to their location. In those two hours and 40 minutes, they would have to rely on sheer guts and luck to stay safe while facing 40 desperate and determined men.

Therefore, it is imperative that the government equip the MMEA with more purpose-built assets which are newer, larger and faster, to replace the current older ones as well as boats that are not built for long-range patrols. As its name suggests, the Penyelamat 7 was built for search-and-rescue operations, not enforcement. The MMEA would also be needing mobile floating bases – perhaps converted merchant vessels that can house extra crew, the Special Task and Rescue (STAR) team with a helicopter and fast Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats to act as a logistics ship for the MMEA patrol vessels as well as back ups for its patrol vessels. This way, patrol vessels will have a longer range and patrol endurance to intercept the packs.

Faster and capable patrol boats also need to be acquired for anti-piracy and anti-smuggling operations especially in the Johor waters and the Strait of Melaka.

The Vietnamese fishing fleets are known to be accompanied by a ‘mothership’ so that they can fish far from their waters, while the Indonesia smugglers and pirates are only a short hop away, able to carry out hit-and-run raids quickly if left unchecked. It is about time the government becomes serious about the matter and better equip the MMEA as any paramilitary force should be equipped.

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.